Few paddlers have covered as many miles as Bart de Zwart, the undisputed king of endurance paddling and a vetrean of virtually every ultra long distance race in the world. Bart was back in action again last weekend when he joined over 500 other brave paddlers to tackle the almighty Tennessee River Gorge as part of the Chattajack race.
It would be an understatement to say that Chattajack was a tough one this year, with freezing cold temperatures and driving rain forcing more than five dozen paddlers to retire mid-race. Bart held on for a runner-up finish (his third straight) behind four-time champ Larry Cain; here’s how it felt out on the river.
I only decided last minute to race Chattajack race this year. I had signed up five months ago but due to other obligations, I only bought a plane ticket 10 days ago. So it was going to be a quick trip: Arrive Friday, race Saturday and leave Sunday morning. Sounds easy, but wen you fly from Maui it’s a lot of plane time.
Before I left, I saw two forecasts: The Maui forecast, aka perfect conditions with a giant swell and light wind; and the conditions for Chattanooga, Tennessee, which was forecast to be between 5 and 10 degrees (41-50 F), windy and raining on race day. So I left with mixed feelings.
When I arrived in Chattanooga, which was still warm and sunny on the eve of the race, I met up with all the familiar faces and was straight back in the mood for racing no matter how bad the forecast for the next day looked.
With 575 signed up competitors this is one of the biggest races in the world, which is interesting because it’s also one of the toughest at 50 km (31 miles). This is my third Chattajack, and again I was going to use my trusty Starboard Sprint 14×23.
I woke up at 5am on race day to prepare my race fuel and drive to the finish to leave the car there. By the time we got to start it was cold, wet and the wind had already started to pick up. On the plus side the river had some nice downstream flow of about 1 km/hr, which would make things slightly easier.
The last two years I’ve gotten second behind Larry Cain in this race, and this year I decided to really give him a run for his money. But that’s always easier said then done… The former Olympic gold medalist has a strong, powerful stroke and he can keep the rhythm up for a long time.
Strangely, despite being a five hour race, this is actually one of my shorter events for the year after the 220km 11 City Tour and 715km Yukon River Quest.
Below: a sea of paddlers at the start in Chattanooga
I spoke to Larry on the eve of the race and we decided to work together if we were still together after the chaotic start.
Sure enough the start was a little messy because of the current pushing us towards the line and the wind turning us around. The horn blew when almost nobody was prepared, but luckily I came away first and pushed hard the first few hundred meters until Larry joined me along with John Batson, who has been training with Larry’s Paddle Monster training program and is clearly very fit.
We started to work together right from the beginning taking turns and pushing in the front every 10 minutes. Soon we were well clear of the pack and came into a good rhythm.
Right before the start I saw more rain coming and the wind in our face, so I decided to put on my super thin wind breaker. I am clearly not a real Dutchman anymore and too used to living on warm Maui, as the cold in Tennessee really got to me. But during the next 5 hours I certainly never regretted the decision to race in a jacket because the temperatures quickly went from cold to freezing.
Later I found out more than one third had pulled out during the race, mostly due to cold and borderline hypothermia. It was a tough one this year.
Although the river winds down in all directions, Murphy’s law gave us head wind most of the time. Not enough to really slow us down but enough to make it a bit more of a struggle.
By halfway we couldn’t see any other paddler except for one unlimited behind us. All three of us were on Starboard Sprints, which seemed perfect in these long flat conditions.
By now I was confident Larry and I would stay together until the finish. John sometimes slipped away a few board lengths but always managed to stick with us. Larry and I both tested the water with some accelerations but it looked like it would come down to the finish.
We all realized we were stronger together than everybody for himself, so we stuck together. At some points we had very strong head wind that felt chilling to the bone. I was very glad I had my two layers of clothing plus wind breaker.
I had already done two Chattajacks with Larry, so I knew he has a very strong sprint from his Olympic canoeing days plus the fact he still trains hard. But I found one or two weaknesses, which is side chop and buoy turns. In the whole 50km race there is only one buoy: a 45-degree turn right before the finish. So I knew that was my only chance to really make a move.
The order of our 10 minute turns up front left me in the third place in the train about a mile form the finish. Not ideal positioning to make a move from. As we neared the finish, Larry started to accelerate to overtake John. I stayed with him but couldn’t overtake. When we got to the buoy Larry had about one board length on me, but as I expected he had a harder time getting around it.
Cutting to the the inside I managed to get even with him at the beginning of the sprint about 70 metres or so from the line. I gave it everything but so did Larry, and apparently with a little more power: he came over the line first place for the fourth year in a row to stamp his authority on this event.
Again it was runner-up for me, followed by John right behind us who was really impressive (especially considering how minimal his cold weather clothing was).
I managed to stay warm the whole race but when we got off the water it was bitterly cold. I jumped straight into my warm clothes, including a big down jacket, then went back to the finish to watch the rest of the paddlers come in.
The great thing about hard, long and tough-weather races like this year’s Chattajack is that it gives you a real sense of accomplishment when you do finally finish. I saw a lot of cold but happy faces over the next few hours.
The three of us at the front all broke the old course record by finishing in 4 hours and 51 minutes, but some of the battlers were out there for eight hours. Those are the real warriors of this race.