2014 Chattajack Follies

Chattajack 2014 became a goal on my calendar the moment I crossed the finish line at Hales Bar in 2013. I had very little time to train in 2013, due to a pre-Battle of the Paddle injury. So 2014, with no stitches in my foot, and plenty of injury-free training hours and miles under my belt, I was ready. Yet sometimes all the training in the world cannot prepare you for the totally unexpected. Chattajack 31 2014 was, hands-down, the wildest and strangest race I’ve ever done.

Before I recount the harrowing details, I must shout out a huge “thank you” to Ben Friberg and Kim Sutton for hosting yet another spectacular Chattajack. Not-to-mention, the countless volunteers that helped with registration, packet pick-up, board check, board handling, safety boats, timing, and finish line logistics – you all rock! By far, the best part of this race is the amazing love and support that we all have for one another on and off the water. Sure, we all might be a bit cray-cray for paddling down a river 32 miles, but that sort of craziness fosters a pretty cool bond. There’s an unspoken code that drives us all to be ambassadors of the sport – when someone falls in, we stop to make sure they are ok. If a draft train buddy gets catapulted off their board, we stop to make sure they are ok, help in any way we can, and give encouragement. And, in some cases, we give of ourselves so that others may complete the course.  Kindness and altruism run strong in this sport. Let’s keep it that way!

And so my story begins…

The morning began much better than Chattajack 2013. The air temperature was cool, but not freezing. The water temp was warm. The beautiful sunrise seemed to assure all of us on the water that the day would be perfect. As luck would have it, we even had more current than what was predicted. The one thing that could potentially mess things up was a slight head wind, but hey, we had the river current to cancel it out. Right?

The plan was to draft with my buddy Karen Wilson. She and I met on the water at Chattajack 2013. It was at mile 4, when she spoke the most glorious words a fellow paddler could hear, “Hey, you look to be about my speed, wanna draft?” Since then, we’ve become good friends, raced a few races together, and even got to train with each other.

Karen and I were right next to each other when the horn blew. In those first few minutes, I found there was no escape from the chop. I think my wobbling made Karen nervous. I knew she was close behind me, but I was concentrating so much on not falling, that I could only hope she would get on my tail and follow me thru the one-mile of washing machine slosh. Once the race-start mayhem calmed down, I got my rhythm down and found a draft train forming with Milla Navarro, Bethany Smithers, and Trish Miller. I was like, “Cool this is gonna be fun – all of us paddling together!” Just as I was making my dash to join the draft train, I turned to my right and saw Kathy Summers just a few board lengths away. Kathy and I have many mutual friends, but had never paddled together. The girl lives in DC – I live in GA. Our paths barely ever crossed.   Through a mutual non-paddling friend, and the 100/100 facebook group, we became friends and virtual training partners. I was thrilled to see her paddling next to me and even more excited to get to know her better during the next 29 miles. We chatted for a bit and then made a dash to hook on to the draft train. Somewhere in the forming of the 6-7 lady-train, the glorious Lizi Ruiz hopped on. All I could think was, “Please Karen, catch the train”!

As with all endurance races, individuals know their own pace and what they can sustain for hours to come. It was inevitable and sad to see a few girls dropped off the train. SUP drafting isn’t easy. Often times, it’s more work to draft behind a person than it is to paddle on your own. So our big train turned into a small train. Then that train turned into just Kathy and I.

Kathy and I had done our research. We had heard that there was more current in the channel to the right of William’s Island. It made sense. The outer curves of rivers tend to have more current and deeper water. We were on it! If Michael Tavares came in 1st place in 2013 going to the right of the island, so were we! Kathy asked, “Right?” And, I replied, “Right”. Done. Long story, short – we messed up. Swells from nowhere turned into whitecaps from hell. In an attempt to shelter ourselves from the wind we headed for the banks of river-right. With some reprieve from the wind and whitecaps, we paddled on, not saying much to each other, but both knowing we had made a big mistake. Then, most unexpectedly, my fin hit a rock. I was catapulted from my board like a ragdoll flung from a slingshot. Stunned and swimming with paddle still in hand, I made it back to my board. Once back on my board feeling like a drowned rat, all I could think was thank God we weren’t paddling in the same conditions as last year. Wet, cold, a little dumbfounded, and VERY thankful that Kathy waited for me, we were back at it and paddling hard. We knew we had lost valuable time going to the right of the island. We paddled on. Kathy occasionally hollered back to me, “You OK?” We traded draft positions mile after mile. All the while slowing down for one another if the caboose got unhinged. Somewhere after the island, at about mile 9, just before Suck Creek, Kathy and I were digging away, still on river-right, when my fin caught a tree branch. Again, I went flying, a spectacular summersault into the water 5 yards in front of my board. This time however, my board remained in place. Stuck on the tree branch. The nose of my board taunted me as it bounced back and forth, while like a leaf, I continued to float down river. I felt the drag of my wet clothes. My hydration pack, already filled with 170 ounces of fluid, was collecting river water and pulling me further away from my board. How could I have not worn a leash? How could I have been so stupid? After floundering back to my board, with paddle in hand, I did a gear check. The hat I thought I had lost on the first fall was miraculously perched on the back of my board. The earphones I had for the potential lonely miles were dangling around my neck. I tucked them into my shirt and looked for the borrowed sunglasses I was wearing. They were gone – pair number four lost in southeastern waters in past couple months. Sorry, Natalie. My gels and Kind bars were still in the pockets of my now waterlogged pack. My PFD was still around my waist and thankfully not deployed. I was relieved to find most everything in tact.   Despite the massive adrenaline rush, I was determined to calmly stand back up, and carry on, with a purpose. All the while, my paddle sister had waited for me, offering any help she could while being pulled by the current herself. We had definitely had enough of river-right.

I wish I could say that last fall was the worst of it and cut to the end… But the worst was yet to come. We knew we needed to find stronger current to catch up to the draft train we had left nearly five miles back. We opted to battle the wind and aim for the middle of the river. Kathy was leading. We were about 10 yards away from a green channel marker, when Kathy yelled, “I’m going left”.  I hollered, “OK!” She didn’t go left. Somehow, either stronger current, or an eddy behind the marker pulled her right. She yelled, “Right, right!” But it was too late. One of the keys to drafting is to find that sweet spot, typically a little bump of water about an inch or two behind the back of the board. When you follow anything that close, you typically end up going in the same direction. I got sucked in and was pulled to the right of the marker as well. I choked up on my paddle to get better leverage and distance between my board and the marker. We were moving fast. It was difficult to stand, let alone battle the current. In that moment, time stood still. Something was tugging on my paddle. I looked to my left and at eye level I saw the handle of my paddle caught in one the channel marker “fans”. The current was still whipping me around the marker at a ferocious speed. That’s when I heard it… an awful sound… a sound no paddler ever wants to hear. Layers and layers of carbon fiber cracking, and then a terminating SNAP! I was free… moving down river… with half a paddle… shocked (and somewhat thankful) that I didn’t go for another swim. I stared stunned, and in disbelief, at the castrated end of my paddle. Then the familiar voice of my paddle sister Kathy, “Do you want me to grab the handle?” I looked at her, with the same dumbfound stare I had been giving the severed end of my paddle and then saw other half of my paddle mockingly bobbing in the Tennessee River. “Why?” I said. The harsh reality had set in. There was no way that I could paddle the remaining 20 miles with half a paddle. I told her to go… “Go Kick some ASS! I’ll wait for a support boat, I’m done.” Again, “GO!” She knew it was the only thing we could do. With deep sadness, she bowed her head, turned her board around, and paddled away.

Deflated. Bummed. Pissed. I sat on my board and collected my thoughts as the current took me slowly down the river. I figured my only option was to wait for a safety boat.

I suck at waiting.

As I looked at the towering fall colored walls of the Tennessee River Gorge, a desire so strong came over me. I had to finish. I could not quit. I knew I had made the 10-mile/2.5 hr cutoff. So technically, even if I just floated to Hales Bar, I’d still qualify as finishing the race. There I was, with my emasculated paddle, contemplating my dilemma. I’m a paddler, a strong paddler, damn it! That little voice in my head said, “Paddle! Paddle hard!” Cue the dueling banjos. I looked for other paddlers, but they were all smoothly paddling the calmer waters of river left – the smart ones, the ones that went left at the island. I aimed my board for a point on the southern shore and started paddling. I was paddling on my knees.

Then a thought crossed my mind… crap, am I disqualifying myself? Shit! WPA rules state,

“A competitor must be standing while paddling once a race has started until crossing over the finish line. A competitor is allowed to sit, lay or kneel to rest without making forward progress. If a competitor takes more than five strokes while sitting, laying or kneeling once a race has started, the competitor may be disqualified (DNF). The exception with this would be for safety reasons where a competitor needs to avoid or may be put into a potentially dangerous situation that would put them or others at risk of injury and or property damage.”

I wonder what the WPA would say to an equipment malfunction. I figured, what the hell does it matter? I needed to get to the finish line somehow. So I paddled on.

After about a mile of paddling on my knees, upset with my current situation, I spotted a safety boat a couple hundred yards behind me. I flagged it down with my crippled paddle. As the boat approached I noticed the captain was Tommy Cost, a friend of mine. He told me of another paddler that had come off the water a few miles back. He said, “Let me see if I can get his paddle for you.” I think I still had a deer-in-the-headlights stare going on, because as Tommy started to pull away, he yelled, “Paddle, paddle hard, Kim! We’ll be back with a paddle for you soon.”

Kim Hillhouse Broken Paddle Chattajack 2014As I continued on, I had what seemed like an out-of-body experience. I felt like I was in some crazy Deliverance movie minus the banjos, but I swear I heard gunshots echo in the gorge. Once I made it to the narrower portion of the river, I found myself surrounded by other paddlers. Folks said, “Oh, Crap! What happened?” and “Damn, up Shit Creek, with half a paddle!” Just being around other paddlers, created a sense of calm. The sun was shining. Even the wind seemed to have died a bit. After about 3.5 miles of surreal knee paddling, I looked to my left and saw Ben Friberg, our most gracious and awesome host on a prone board. It was so good to see him, to know that he was out on the water with us, and enjoying (or struggling through) the course as the rest of us were. We chatted about how the first 15 miles of Chattajack were going for him. I felt so at ease, like, hey maybe I could paddle the rest of the course with a broken paddle. That was when the safety boat charged up next to me with a relief paddle. I took the paddle, and handed them mine. But just as I was about to paddle away, I turned around and asked for my paddle! I wanted it on board with me as I token of what happened and spear of determination to get me through to the finish line! Once I got my river-legs back, I was happy to be back on my feet.

With the borrowed, extra long, paddle in hands, I paddled. I paddled hard. I talked to a few people that had passed me while I was on my knees, but kept on going. My goal was to get back to my paddle sister, Kathy. As the miles ticked on, I passed SUPers and Kayakers, while boats whizzed by, never ceasing my search for Kathy on her white Starboard paddleboard.

At mile 24, I caught up to Kathy. I was elated! We paddled for a few miles trading off pulling every other mile. Then, out-of-the-blue, my paddle sister said a few words that just stunned me. She said she needed to stop, go to shore, and eat.  And then said I should motor on. I didn’t understand.  I mean, I felt good, and had visions of the two of us coming across the finish line with our boards nose-to-nose, while we stood arm-in-arm, tying whatever place it was going to be. I was bummed.

I left her, as she left me earlier that morning. It sucked. I paddled. I paddled hard. I passed more paddlers.

At about mile 28 I saw Lizi, one of the girls from the draft train so many hours ago. I couldn’t believe she was paddling on her own. I would have loved to chat with her, but I saw just a short way ahead of me a few very familiar silhouettes all paddling in their distinct styles. Three of my favorite paddling buddies in a draft train… Karen, Chandler, and Trish. I’ve raced and trained with these girls and was so excited to see them. I chased after them like a thirsty traveler who sees a flickering mirage of water in a desert. My friends! My buddies! Wait! Wait up! If only I could catch the draft train to get a tiny bit of relief before the finish line sprint. I got close. As I rounded Hales Bar, they were at the start buoy for the sprint finish. I saw one of the girls fall in. It was a battle to the end.

Unbeknownst to all of us, we were 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. Karen was 1st, Chandler was 2nd, and Trish was 3rd. I love these girls. They are the most wonderful women to paddle with – gracious, caring, kind, and supportive.

In 2013, I came in 6th. This year I came in 4th: Women’s 12’6, Distance: 32.4 miles, Time: 6:08:56, 4th Place.

I can’t end this without saying a HUUUGE thank you to David Leach. He was there at the finish line, all bandaged up with a huge smile on his face. It was only then that I found out that it was his paddle that got me thru the last 17 miles of the race. I said some pretty nasty things about his paddle. I was in pain, tired, cranky, and hungry. Aside from what I said, David was my guardian angel, my hero. It was a huge bummer that he didn’t get to complete the course. I couldn’t have finished as strongly as I did without his generosity. And for that, I am forever grateful.

By now, you probably have a good idea of why I love this sport so much. It’s so much more than just being outside and enjoying the water and nature; it’s about our community, our family, our ohana – we help each other out – it’s what we do.

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