30 Something Miles, 650 Friends and a Chocolate Milk.
The buzzing of the alarm, sounds. I jump out of my bed as if someone threw a bucket of ice water on me.
It is a Tuesday night. And the final few minutes of April 30th. As the clock on my phone turns to 12:00 am. I flip open my computer. Enter the web address, chattajack.com. Click register. And follow the prompts entering my information.
Moments later. The red numeral 1 sits next to the envelope icon on my phone. The magnitude of that night reveals itself six some odd months later. As I made my way to Ross's Landing. With the darkness of night still present. Walking down the stairs, facing the Tennessee River, a sea of paddlecrafts are scattered throughout an amphitheater type layout.
It was October 26th, and 650 plus paddlers where gathered in Chattanooga, TN. As the live music filled the air, drowning out the chit chat of the paddlers, spectators and volunteers. The excitement and energy was contagious. And could be felt throughout the entire city.
This was my first experience as a participant of Chattajack 31. But the support from all those walking around the event and reaching out from afar, via phone, text and social media. Provided just what I needed. I was ready to set out on the 31 plus mile paddle down the river with 600 some odd friends. No expectations. Just a smile that stretched from ear to ear.
With the boards and gear prepped. We capture a few photos and videos. But as the words of the National Anthem were sang, and sounding out through the many speakers. The event stood still.
It brought me back to a place. One that I haven't thought of in years. Standing on the blueline, inside the hockey rink. Looking up at the American Flag being flown. Getting ready to play. The difference this time, the nerves. For some reason I had a sense of calm that took over my body. With the Star Spangled Banner being completed. The excitement to get on the water was building. And the rush to the water, resembled that of everyone leaving work on a Friday afternoon. A few words were said. But mostly smiles and head nods were exchanged. As I placed the board in the water. The surreal feelings became something this blog will never do justice. I am not sure if it was from being surrounded by so many individuals feeling the buzz. The encouragement from everyone. Or the fact I was setting out on a journey on a new paddle craft, a prone paddleboard. The paddle to the start I remember vividly. Paddling around with Joe Bark, Gemma Bark, Chandler Bold, AJ Deflippis, Chad Hinkley, Bill Kraft, Chris Aguilar, Joe Scaturro, Wally Buckingham, Loraine Gruber and a handful of others. It felt like we were just going on a training paddle.
With Joe and Gemma Bark in front, I followed their lead. Joe told us to start our watches. And before I hit the button that began the ticking of the clock. The musket was shot and we were off. From this moment on. The time literally flew by.
At the seven mile mark. My body was feeling great. The mind soaking up all the surroundings. An occasional chat with a paddler happened. I was in a dreamlike state. One hand in the water at a time. Smile still stretching across my face.
This feeling continued as I made my way to the Pot Point Cabin, a log and plank cabin filled with history and located on the water. The name came from a rapid named "Boiling Pot" just a short paddle away on the Tennessee River. This spot was also where the Bark Team was staying and hosted a handful of friends cheering for us. I took a moment to check in with them, have a snack and head back down the river. As I was just shy of the half way mark.
Back on the water, and with the GPS letting me know I had under 10 miles remaining. My training began to set in. But not the training many would think. As my previous longest prone paddle was four miles and put my on the water for only an hour. My mental training. The yoga. And cold showers. I placed my chin down on the chin rest, which Joe Bark made out of kitchen sink sponges helping to elevate the strain on the neck while paddling. Pulled down the visor on my hat, protecting my eyes from the rain and mind from the watch. I moved through a meditation sequence. Long steady exhales. As my arms moved one by one to the front of the board, into the water, alongside the board, and back out. I lost count of the breaths. But I noticed all the pain in the body subsided. I began to pick up the pace a bit more and engaged in a few more chats.
This went on for another hour. Then the eyes became fixated on the watch again. Now it was time to become my own cheerleader. I had only single digits left on the remaining miles. But the mind was ready to be done.
I pulled the hat back down. Chin sat comfortably on the rest. And I closed my eyes. There were other paddlers around, but I had about a 100 foot radius of empty space. I went back to the yoga. Focused on the hands being soft. Moving forward one at a time. And I began to drift off into my favorite meditation mantra. Gratitude.
I am not sure how long this lasted. But I realized I have been paddling with my eyes closed for a bit. I spun my hat around backwards. My path was the same, like autopilot was on. And the smile returned back to my face. The landmark that everyone told me about revealed itself. About the same time the wind switched from our backs to our face. 28.5 miles the gps read. The water began to splash over my board. And into my eyes. I spun my hat forward, and thanks to the tip from Joe Bark, it shielded the water out of my face. My body was feeling good, a few aches and pains here and there. But I decided to make a push. I wanted to get to the finish line. And I knew with these conditions they were only going to get more difficult. As I rounded the haunted looking building, the cowbells and cheers filled the air. There was no more reason to look at the watch.
Just paddle. Paddling past the dock, lined with friends, paddlers who finished and spectators, it was impossible not to smile.
As I made my way out of the water. A medal was placed around my neck. And a chocolate milk placed in my hand. The amount of pats on the backs and cheers and words of encouragement was something I'll never forget. The paddle gear was replaced by dry warm clothes and accompanied cold beer. I assumed the role of cheerleader for all of those still on the water accomplishing this daunting feat of paddling 31.8 miles. We cheered. Laughed. And soaked up the remaining few hours of the event. This event is special. It has inspired so many. And empowered many more. It is why, 6 months earlier 650 of us get up at Midnight to register. And why in under 4 hours, no spots remain. It is something that one must participate in to fully understand. Whether new to paddling or a lifelong paddler. Yes training is required. But don't let that be a focus or deterrent. The amount of support will help anyone get to Hales Bar Marina.
This is why I'll be up at Midnight, May 1st 2020.