Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Chattajack Recap 2016

This took me longer to write than my own race recaps! I just wanted to do it justice; this was truly the hardest race Matt's ever completed. He is a BEAST.

I've said it before and those of you who have run a marathon know it's true: 26.2 miles is a long way and a lot can go wrong over the course of that mileage.

So when you're talking 32 miles on the water, you know that holds true...tenfold.
For those of you who weren't reading here last year, Chattajack is a 31-mile standup paddle board race in Chattanooga, TN. (Because of the currents etc, the race is really 31-33 miles. This year Matt's GPS clocked in at 32.) Matt completed it for the first time last year and totally loved it; last year they didn't have much current but they did have mild, beautiful weather. He finished well ahead of his goal.
An aerial photo of the racers on the river this year.
This year, not so much. As we drove into Chattanooga on Thursday night, we were greeted with gentle rainfall that welcomed in the weekend's cold front and gusty wind. By race morning, it was 48 degrees and the wind was gusting at 20+ mph.
This Floridian was NOT READY.
Still, Matt was ready to go. We were staying at our friend Quack's house this year, and we had my car so I was able to plan to meet Matt along the course much more easily. Friday evening, we went to the sign-in at Ross's Landing, where the race would start Saturday morning.
I noticed quite a few bibs still hadn't been picked up when we arrived and commented that there may have been a few racers who had chosen to drop out due to weather. Matt prepped his board before checking it in.
This year, alongside the course map, he taped a photo of himself and Nana for extra inspiration. Then we drove around to the places I'd plan to meet him along the route.
In line for packet pickup.
We had sushi for dinner and then turned in for the night. Saturday morning was upon us before we knew it! The safety meeting was scheduled for 7:30am, so we left the house around 6:30 to arrive at 7. It was freezing. What would have been a brisk, clear morning was made brutal by the gusting wind.

Matt opted to race in the 12'6" division this year; there were fewer men in that division and that meant fewer people to draft off of. Matt had used social media pre-race to find people to draft, and spent some time race morning frantically looking for the one guy he thought he'd want to draft with. No luck.
Matt prepping his board (in the foreground) under the spotlights before sunrise.

Cold, but humoring me with a photo.
(Spoiler alert: he did eventually find Jeremy Whitted on the water and drafted him for the first three miles before making a slight mistake; he couldn't get back into his draft and then before he knew it, Jeremy was gone! He went on to win first place in the division.)
Like last year, a band (including the race director on guitar) playing Led Zeppelin's Kashmir urged the racers out to the starting line. Without much ado, the race began!
This is like playing Where's Waldo! Below is a better picture of Matt's pre-race-face.

This year, I was very prepared for my job as Sherpa! I hopped into my car and made my way toward mile 10.7, the Suck Creek Boat Ramp. I stopped at a gas station for a bathroom break, to grab a coffee, and to fill my tires. Prepped and ready, I made it to the first viewing point well ahead of schedule.
This draft train was cool - there was 8 guys or so in it! Matt wasn't one of them though because they're on 14' boards.
Last year I missed Matt at this point, so I was really glad when he finally rounded the bend and I was able to scream at him from my spot on the ramp. (I was concerned he wouldn't hear me from the more distant viewing points but he told me afterward that he heard me each time!)
Matt is that tiny speck!
At this first point, Matt was on his own. The wind hadn't quite picked up to the point of whitecaps, but the river was choppy. I was really nervous to see that he wasn't drafting anyone.
Mile 10.7: Suck Creek. He's still smiling at this point!
Off I drove to the second spot, mile 19: Raccoon Mountain. This was a great spot because I was able to go down onto a pier and be very close. There were a few different places to park and see the racers, and I wanted to get as close as possible.
The view at Raccoon Mountain.
RIGHT on the water! I don't know why more spectators didn't climb down to the pier.
At this point in the day the wind was really strong. The racers passing me looked to be standing still at some points, and they were struggling. Spray was coming up off the water and the chop was erratic. The sun felt good but the wind was slicing through me.

Finally, Matt appeared, and he had a friend in tow! A fellow 12'6"er, Karl, had caught up to him around mile 16 and they had formed a little draft train. I was able to call out to him and get photos; then I ran up the embankment, jumped in my car, sped down the road a few hundred meters, and hopped back out to cheer him on again just as he passed by the second viewing spot.
I was so tempted to yell, "I love you!" but felt silly doing it. I told him instead, "See you at Sullivan's Landing!"
The next place along the route was mile 24. At this point Quack joined me. This spot was again very far from the racers, but I borrowed some binoculars when I thought Matt was close based on the Find-My-Friends app and was able to see that he and Karl were still trucking along. I screamed across the water: "GO MATT GO! SEE YOU AT THE FINISH!" (I asked, "Do you think he heard me?" and Quack responded, "I think the entire valley heard you!" A couple older ladies waiting for their husbands seemed jealous of my lung capacity.)
You can just barely see Matt and Karl across the water.
A paddler who had been out for a leisurely paddle that morning told us that the conditions were very hard. She knew a few racers who had DNS'd and said she was sure there were going to be a few DNFs, too.

Matt's cousin Nikki texted that she was at the finish, and I gave her a rough estimate of Matt's finishing time. Then Quack and I went to meet her at mile 31 (32): Hale's Bar.

This was when things got hairy. The wind, which had been bad the entire morning, was whipping around us and the finish line sprint, which goes alongside the pier, was full of choppy waves and currents going in all different directions. As racers began to come in, we noticed how hard it was for them to stay upright. Matt's estimated finish time came and went, and he was nowhere in sight. I had no service at the pier, so I couldn't check on where he was.

All I knew was that he was really late, and I was getting scared.

When he finally came around the last corner and into the final sprint, he fell off his board. Matt never falls. I was so worried; I knew if he felt fine but had fallen he'd be pissed, but I was sure something was wrong. Matt doesn't fall.
Post-fall, soaking wet and just ready to be done.
He tried to get on his board and fell again.

I ran down the pier and encouraged him. He was back up and just single-mindedly paddling to the finish - not fast, not sprinting, but steadily.
The race organizers wouldn't let me run all the way down because they said the end of the pier was in bad shape for spectators, so I stood and watched him as he finished, sat down, and immediately went to eat something. I thought I was going to cry; I just wanted to be near him and see how he was.

Finally, he looked up. I waved at him. He waved back.

He made his way over to us and I could see he was shaking uncontrollably. He was soaking wet and the wind hadn't died down at all. His fingers weren't quite working as he tried to remove his bib, open his chocolate milk, etc.
Slowly recovering.
I went into caretaker mode. Get him out of the water. Get a sweater on him. Get socks and shoes on him. Get him to the car and blast him with hot air.

Quack and Nikki's husband Robert carried his board back to the car and I put an arm around his waist and literally held him upright and pushed him forward as we made our way back to the car. We wrapped him in his towel and as many dry shirts as we could.
We managed a cheer-team picture before we loaded him into the car.
During the drive back to Quack's, I blasted the heat and felt like I was in a hot-yoga class.

He fell asleep on the short drive back. He wouldn't stop shivering.

Luckily, once he had a hot shower and we got some food in him, he seemed to recover. But this was honestly the scariest moment of my married life. I really thought he was hypothermic. (We learned later than at least one racer had been rescued from a bank after he had rolled his surf-ski and was too cold and weak to continue - he was pre-hypothermic.)
Warm, dry clothes and a burrito...this is post-race heaven.
So. This was all a crazy adventure, but it wasn't over. We left for the award ceremony and celebration. Matt got a complimentary massage while I sought out his results.
He finished in 6:26 (compared to last year's 5:40 - he realistically thought he'd come in around 5:15 this year) and 3rd in his division. So at least all the pain and struggle paid off! In his division, 9 racers either DNS or DNF. As it turned out, only 356 started the race even though 500+ signed up (remember this unclaimed bibs way back at the beginning of this post?); 310 finished. Quite a few didn't make the 8.5 hour cutoff time. (We saw on the race's Facebook page that one racer took 10 hours to finish, but they were determined to get it done despite the conditions.)
Waiting for awards to be announced.
At the ceremony, the race director talked about how it's important to do what's safe for you, and if that means you DNF, that's okay. Because of how the river curves, the wind was rarely at the racers' backs; it was basically a wind tunnel of headwind.
Here's the beginning of the post-race newsletter. The Facebook page is fully of hilarious "I-survived-Chattajack-2016" stories.
The course is a WPA certified course and as such, racers can only go to their knees for 5 strokes or else they're DQ'd; they can also only draft racers in the same board division, which is why Matt wasn't in a draft train for some of the race. (Matt and Karl stuck together until Matt's legs started to give out from constantly trying to balance and fight the waves and wind, around mile 28. He told me he fell just before I saw him turn into the finish, about half a mile out, and at that point he knew he was just cooked. He legs were "mush.")
Jeremy, Karl, and Matt!
Anyway, the director made it clear that those who weren't in contention to podium and "did what they had to do" to finish were a-okay; it was the hardest year they've ever had and those that finished are going to be Chattajack legends. Some racers stayed on their knees for the last five miles or more.
One telling response on the "Is everyone okay?" post on the race's FB page. Those finishing after the time limit legit don't get medals.
The wind was brutal throughout the entire race, and the complications for paddle-boarders certainly didn't go unnoticed.
With my winner!
A close up of the award.
Matt met his goal of reaching that podium, and despite how hard the race was he said he felt really strong until the end; it took a lot out of him, but he's ready to do it again next year. Sounds familiar.
The day after the race we went to Rock City to take some photos...but I'll write about that later.

All in all, it was an intense weekend. I'm so grateful to Quack for his hospitality, and I'm really proud of Matt's fellow racers, including the other CGT race-team members Murray, Mark, and Meg (who took 2nd place in her division). I know we'll be back next year; I liken this race to BDR, and I know Matt is ready to totally own that river and get his redemption without all that wind!



  1. Wow, great recap, and congrats to Matt for managing to stick it through (and place!) Very inspiring!

  2. I wrote another comment, but somehow, I made it disappear. Sorry if you get duplicates.

    Congratulations to Matt! That race sounds 1. Amazing and 2. Super challenging!

    I know there was a cut off, but it really sucks that those who missed the time limit didn't get a medal. Especially knowing how difficult the conditions were, and what are they going to do with the medals anyway?

    That is an awesome AG award!! very very cool!!

    1. Thanks Ana! The awards were awesome. This race always outdoes itself with everything. That's why no matter how torturous the conditions and distance might be, so many of us will always be back for more.

      There were no age groups in this race. Which is a little unusual especially given how large some of the divisions were (up to 180+!). Most SUP races aren't big enough to have lots of age groups like running, so they sometimes have U17, 18-49, and 50+ but never more than that. The only divisions at this race were based on the type of watercraft you were on (kayak, SUP, outrigger canoe, etc) and length of SUP (14', 12'6", or unlimited which is usually around 18 feet).

      I agree that it sucks some people didn't get medals after the cutoff time. Especially the ones (and there were at least a few) that literally finished within a minute or 2 of the cutoff time. Some said their own personal timer had them just under 8.5 hours but the official time said otherwise. That would be aggravating. But I think the reason is to not encourage people that maybe didn't train hard enough or take signing up for a race of this magnitude seriously enough. They don't want a bunch of newbies trying to take on a race like this because it can be dangerous. So the cutoff time is partially due to time constraints (they can't stay there all day waiting for finishers when they have to pack up and get ready for the ceremony, etc) partially due to permits and insurance, and partially to discourage people that are in over their heads. The good thing is most people I saw said they had no problem with it because it was made very clear before the race, and they'll use it to motivate them for next year.

    2. I kind of like that they don't give out medals if you miss the cutoff time because it makes the race seem more "hardcore." Like, they're not joking around! But, like Matt said, they make it super clear to racers that you have to make the cutoff to get the medal, so no one is surprised when they don't.

  3. I had tears in my eyes as soon as Matt taped Nana's picture to his board up until the end. Your live for him really shows in this post. I'd be the crazy person screaming through the valley at my husband too!! I did not realize how tough the conditions were. MATT IS A Beast!!! Matt, what prepared you the most for this? To get third place while so many dnfed!?

    1. I guess it was all in the training! This year I subscribed to our team coach's training theory which is short intense intervals, no matter what distance you're training for. While also adding strength training. The most miles I did leading up to this race was a 10 mile race and a 13 mile training paddle. But the majority was an hour or less. It was a bit of an experiment but it worked and I'm a believer! I think a lot of the DNFs were in over their heads on this race too. They probably would have needed perfect conditions like last year to make the 8.5 hour cutoff time. One big difference in paddling against wind and running is that if you get beat up in a running race, you can at least walk and keep making progress to the finish. If you stop paddling or slow down a little too much, you're either going nowhere or backwards.

    2. It's frustrating when you think about how hard it is to truly do justice to hard race conditions. Like...even paddling in little waves for 6 hours would make your legs feel crampy and achy, but it's hard to really describe how much your body tenses up and deals with on bigger waves. I just can't even imagine, and it's hard to describe!!

  4. WOW that sounds like seriously intense conditions. Matt is such a champ -- not only did he make it to the end but he placed in conditions that I'm sure he could not have imagined during his training here in Florida. SO AWESOME!

    1. Thanks Kristina! I've paddled in plenty of wind here in FL, but the cold is usually not added to it. Especially for 6+ hours!

    2. I honestly don't know how to perseveres that way. I'd have quit!

  5. Wow, I hadn't been a reader last year so I had no idea this was even aa thing. So glad that Matt made it okay and even though it was tough conditions, yay for 3rd. I couldn't even imagine being out there for 10 hours but kudos to that person.

    1. Yeah, that person is truly awesome. I mean, an 8.5 hour cutoff seems long anyway; I can't imagine sticking with it for 10 hours, knowing there won't be a medal or even a real finish line at the end.