I posted a chipper “off to paddle” post to CJBOP Saturday morning, sharing my plans and also seeking moral support. I’d been doing long paddles and this was no exception, but the truth is, this one scared the pants off me. More specifically: it freaked me the *** out.
Why? What was so different?
- First, I’d been sick all week with a head cold, and doubted my strength, my sinus mucus levels, and general fortitude.
- Second, this paddle was one I had deemed as utterly critical to not go poorly. Part of this route was a section I’d never paddled before, and part of this route was the tail end towards the finish of CJ that I had paddled last fall. AND. IT. SUCKED. It was probably the worst I have ever felt on a paddleboard, physically, and emotionally. Imagine feeling like you need to throw up while having a panic attack while bonking and you’ve pretty much got the picture.
- Third, the tip of the “last” turn(s) to Hales Bar are dotted with weed beds. They are easy to avoid, but it forces you to be offshore, with no recourse to pull over if needed or get out of the wind.
- Fourth, and related to the above, this part of the course is IT. There is no quitting, there is no turning back, there is no friendly boat dock if you have a problem. You are in it, whether you like it or not. Your choices are limited to forward, reverse, and that’s it. Sort of there is no try only do situation, to quote Yoda via my son.
So we trekked out to Raccoon Mountain, at mile 19.9 on the CJ course. Winds were called to be favorable, about 4 miles per hour ESE which would give us a nudge down the river, barring the occasional ridge gap and directional shift that happens in that section. At the very least, we were not expecting to get the last year’s CJ conditions where the wind is out of the SW which makes the last 4 to 5 miles a headwind. We got on the water and headed out. Fennel and Adam pulled away pretty quickly, and I paddled a bit with Hannah from Knoxville who was new to the course, and talked her through what I knew about the channel depth, winds, topography, weed beds, and the like. She’s faster than me, so after about ten minutes I told her to get into her rhythm and get done whatever she needed to get done on that day, that’s why she’s here, not to visit with me. She pulled away gradually, and as usual Hal came back every half hour or so to do a buoy turn behind me and head away again. Hal headed up to Hannah to make sure she knew the route since she was new, so was gone for a while. It was in this window that a few things played out for me. We passed Sullivan’s landing (mi 24.05) and I wistfully looked over and thought, now this is uncharted territory for me, and that’s the last (sane, reasonable) takeout. I had been blowing my nose a TON, and/or doing that sniffley cough cough oh hope I don’t choke on this wad of mucus thing. I felt warmed up but a little fatigued generally. I kept paddling.
Luncheon of the Boating Party
Fishing boats went by so frequently that I got a little cranky about it – they go by fast so the wakes are minimal but present and enough to break a rhythm. I’d get on the apex of one set of wake, and sure enough, I could hear the next boat coming. I started to laugh about this timing as it repeated again and again and felt a little nutty. I have this joke with myself: if there’s no boat in sight or earshot, and I go to cross the river, BOOM. Here comes one (or more). I trekked across in the quiet peace and heard it from behind. WeeeeeEEEEEEEEEE getting closer, I dug hard. I looked back, yup, pretty much on a trajectory for my area of the channel. DIG. DIG. DIG. Looked back again, close enough to make out the number of heads in the boat, coming directly for me. I waved my paddle frantically and yelled HEY. HEY. HEY. They swerved, and crossed the river. My heart was in my throat, I wanted to cry to let out the fear and the fatigue and nothing came out. I kept paddling. I got sad. I thought, I am all alone out here, and I always am. I am always last. I am always the little kid bringing up the back. And I just wished for something different, I thought of all of you and how supportive of one another we all are, and how I wished that we could share the same river more than once a year. I kept paddling.
I’ll Take Friends – Wherever I Can Find Them
I make friends easily on the river. I am a friendly person by nature, and when tired, lonely, and/or spooked, even moreso. I chatted up a fella sitting watching the river go by, and had multiple greetings exchanged with fisherfolks or recreational boaters. I always get tickled at the general “set” of comments that we exchange on any given day. Here a few of my recurring favorites:
Conversation starters, from me to them:
- “Havin’ any luck”
- “What’s for lunch”
- “Ya’ll gotta beer for me”
- “Lunch ready yet”
- “Ya’ll got the right idea”
- “Can I have a ride”
- “Dinner ready?”
(note the recurring food themes)
Starters from them to me, or in response to the above starters:
- “What kinda gas mileage you get on that thing”
- “How come you don’t fall off”
- “This isn’t your first time on oneathem thangs, is it”
- “Where you paddling to/from” (followed by the reaction to my response of: WHAT? HOW FAR???!)
- “Just lookin at you wears me out”
- “That looks like a lot of fun”
- “I gotta tell you, that don’t look like a ton of fun”
- “Does that work pretty much just your arms” (followed by me retorting “Everything”)
Deep into my funk, I thought maybe I would augment my Hammer Perpetuem and Fizz regimen, which was going just fine, with some solid food as my stomach was growling. I retrieved a PB and Honey from my pack, and had about 4 bites, then back to the Hammer routine. I almost tossed the rest of the half sammi to the fish but with that “you never know” feeling, stuck it instead behind my camelbak. Later, smelling it, with some disdain, I put it in the way back pouch, still accessible but not smellable. Before I knew it I looked up and saw the dock where Fennel and I had turned around last year, and everything went to crap. 1: YAY! I have now officially covered every mile of the CJ course before. 2: OH CRAP: This is where it went bad, what if I have a flashback of some kind? A recurrence? WHAT IF? I kept paddling.
Before too long, I could see the end of Mullen’s Cove and the weed bed to my left began to widen. 4.6 miles to go. Hal had doubled back and was just a bit ahead of me, and he went right at the “left turn” away from Mullens’, staying alongside the river buoys. I spied a fisherman about 20 yards inside the edge of the weed beds and saw a channel. I looked carefully, and could see water moving through past them, reconnecting with the river…leaving a small crescent of weeds “detached” from the main bed. I went for it. I made it through, passing weed beds on right and left, as well as what I call the “underwater tree ones” that come up from the bottom but aren’t as viney. I saw one submerged stump/log and avoided it. Gained a little time, but wondered – will they be like this on race day, and will I be able to tell? I said a few silent (ok, maybe audible) words of thanks as I started shifting south/left towards the two islands that mark the final push to HBD. The sun was still in (which was great, as I felt like crap when it came out briefly), and a gentle but present tailwind/slight cross wind was helping me. The islands seemed interminably far away (FAR FAR AWAY. HOURS AND HOURS! As my son says). I felt a little uneasy for no reason: the weed beds were still at my left, I was fine, boats still passing, but honestly? For some reason the feeling of “I can’t pull over if I need to” kind of bothers me, and it goes on for several miles. I focused on the favorable winds, and just kept paddling.
The Final Push (yes, I am switching to present tense with intent for this section)
Before long, you edge again to the left, and can make out the shiny arch of the Riverbend stage that is stored across from HBD in the off season. I SEE IT! THERE IT IS! I GOT THIS! Then, the mind****. You see it alright, but you just. Can’t. Get. There. HBD is big…and looks big on the water, but the brain has no way to scale this, unlike a typical house or dock. So you paddle and paddle, and the vista changes little. You keep looking left at the (marginally closer now, with the weed beds narrowing) bank, and go ok good. Forward motion. Just keep paddling. It always makes me think of this:
Then, as fate has it, often the winds now come, in your face. You start getting cross wake from boats, and wind chop from the long stretch, and you think to yourself, hey. The water looks like plaid! Or argyle! You put on your music because you need it. You dig and dig and dig and dig and dig. You see the early part of the marina at left and think…I could get out here if I HAD TO. And you keep paddling. You get behind the dam building to block some wind, and keep paddling. Finally you get to the admittedly spooky looking structure (which is reportedly haunted), and turn left, trying not to dump against the chop. And you’re done.
I pulled over to the dock and my friends walked down. I kneeled on my board for the first time in 3 hours and 13.25 miles and immediately cramped, flipping quickly to a butt-sitting-legs-out position. “What just cramped?” asked Adam. “Allathis” I responded, gesturing to the waist down. After a minute it was fine, and I got out and picked up my board, pleased to be done.
The Analysis and Aftermath
I was tired after the paddle, rushing home to shower and off to dinner at my MIL’s, then up late making ironman signs, then the full day out on the IM course cheering for our own Ben Friberg and Kim Sutton, then settling my son in for bed, and sitting at long last on the couch last night at 9:45, thinking, this is the first time I stopped moving since Saturday am. Why I am I tired and sore, no wonder. BUT. This wasn’t even half the course. Can I even finish Chattajack? Can I walk afterwards? Will I just collapse? Will I be unable to move for a week after? Will I be so fatigued form the first part of the race that I get to this section and can’t continue, and then what?
The shining nugget is this: I looked at my pace from Saturday…based upon what I think is the right mileage (my followmee stopped tracking???) I think my pace was about a min per mile faster than my 6 mile race pace which EVEN with some of the wind help, is a big change for me, and may explain the soreness, and gives me just enough hope for race day to keep paddling.