October 26, 2015
by Bart de Zwart

Bart De Zwart’s Grueling 31 Mile Paddle through the Scenic Tennessee Countryside (Chattajack Recap)

Bart de Zwart, Mike Tavares and Larry Cain leading the field in the Chattajack race (photo credit: unknown)

Bart de Zwart, Mike Tavares and Larry Cain leading the field in the Chattajack race (photo credit: unknown)

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Boss Man’s note: This is a guest post from Bart de Zwart, probably the most famous “endurance athlete” in the world of stand up paddling. Bart is famous for his extreme expeditions across the globe, as well as regularly competing in the longest races on the planet.

Just last weekend Bart was at it again, paddling 31 miles down the Tennessee River Gorge for the annual Chattajack race. The Chattajack is fast becoming a must-do race on the calendar, with all 300 entries selling out in record time this year. Read Bart’s insights into the race below, then go and add this great event to your bucket list…

In just 4 short years, the Chattajack race has into one of the most popular paddle races in America, and this year the event attracted 300 competitors across SUP, traditional prone paddleboarding, outrigger canoe and surf skis (though SUP was by far the biggest division). Even more impressive is that all 300 entry places sold out within 2 weeks when registration opened several months ago, something most race promoters can only dream of. It’s even more impressive considering this is such a long and tough race (31 miles of flat water paddling). In many ways it’s like the ‘Inland Molokai’.

I arrived in Tennessee from my home on Maui the day before the race and spent some time checking out the river and the surroundings. The race is held on a nice big river with that often has some current behind you, depending on the time of day. The main organizer of this great event is Ben Friberg and his girlfriend Kimberly, both fellow SUP adventurers/explorers.

After my week-long 11 City Tour and the grueling but great 31 hour Muskoka River X race, I took it easy for 2 weeks at home to recover. Though I didn’t really have much choice, as I had to be on 10 days of antibiotics for a parasite doctors only just found from the SUP trip to Ethiopia that I did with photographer Franz Orsi earlier this year…

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Race morning in Chattanooga,  Tennessee... (photo credit

Race morning in Chattanooga, Tennessee… (photo credit: Lata Johnson)

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The short amount of training I did after my forced break was very tough. It felt like the beginning of the season again and my muscles were very sore. So I arrived in Tennessee with open expectations. Not 100% fit but with 100% dedication.

After waking up very early on race day (the race begins at sunrise), I arrived at the start of the Chattajack to see it buzzing with people and boards despite it still being dark. On board with me I had a life vest, 4 liters of water, some half bananas and energy bars. I had everything I needed for 6-7 hours of paddling, because I didn’t want to make a stop at one of the support posts and lose time during the race.

On race morning the river was very calm, hardly moving at all with unfortunately not much current to support us. The start was between the stone pillars of the main bridge in Chattanooga, which made for some spectacular sunrise photos.

Since the river is very wide, we had a nice and wide starting line with a good fair start.

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The start of the Chattajack paddle race (photo credit: GoJamMedia)

The start of the Chattajack paddle race (photo credit: GoJamMedia)

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I came away clean off the line, together with 4 other paddlers and with hundreds directly behind us. I had met Larry Cain the day before and we had paddled a little together to test the river. He had trained hard and looked very fit. Larry is a veteran Olympic canoe paddler and is also the defending champion of this race, so I knew he would be strong competition.

So with that in mind, it was no surprise to see Larry next to me out front after the initial sprint off the start line. After about a mile, Larry Cain, Mike Tavares and I formed a lead group with many closely on our tail. Corey Taylor was right behind us but lost connection early in the race and, despite holding a very impressive pace the entire race, could never quite close the gap.

Our little train was an oiled machine: 10 minutes of hard work on the front and then we would change position so we could ‘relax’ just a tiny bit. Larry was on a mission, he pushed hard and wanted to break the course record from last year, which was just over 5 hours. Since there was only very little current helping us move along, we thought it would probably be impossible to go under 5 hours. But we pushed on anyway, mainly to hold the gap over Corey who was always breathing down our neck.

After working very hard for the first 15 miles we had built up a substantial lead. Corey was still there but with enough of a gap that we could control him. There was also a field of unlimited boards in the race, but only two of the 18 footers passed us on the course (most of the rest of us were on 14 footers).

I was using the new Starboard 2016 14′ x 25″ All Star. It’s a very versatile board that works very well in flat water races like this but also in choppy or down wind conditions. I believe Connor used this board to win the big Pacific Paddle Games earlier a few weeks ago, so “versatile” is an understatement. Larry was using the 2015 version of the All Star, which is also very fast in flat water but not as versatile in rougher conditions.

The Tennessee River Gorge winds its way through a fall-colored landscape with nothing but mountains on either side. It is a place with very beautiful scenery, and that scene was complete when an old fashioned steamer boat, the American Queen, passed us by mid-race.

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The very scenic, but very grueling Chattajack Race (photo credit: unknown)

The very scenic, but very grueling Chattajack Race (photo credit: unknown)

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During the race I was monitoring my Velocitek Makai GPS unit closely, and after about 3 hours I saw our speed started dropping a little. We had all given a lot of energy in the beginning, and at just over halfway through the 31 miles we were really starting to feel it. We ate and drank well through the whole race so although the average speed dropped slightly (about 0.5km/h or 0.3mph), we were able to hold a consistent pace.

In the race I made my strategic calculations about how I could possibly win: I felt Larry was the stronger paddler today but if Mike and I could stay with him until the finish I knew I would have a chance, because I normally have a strong sprint even after 5 hours of racing.

During the final 30 minutes – after 4 1/2 hours of paddling – it was clear that we were all very tired and that none of us had much left in the tank. When the finish line came into view, I was right behind Larry in the train and Mike was behind me, so just a few seconds separated first from third.

With about 500 meters to go I went to the side of the group and accelerated in an effort to pass Larry. But as is often the case with cramps, they strike you right when you change your pace or posture. As soon as I made my move, suddenly all my stomach muscles cramped up and I had to slow down and stand up straight to get rid of it.

At the same time Mike saw his opening and tried to pass by me. I bent down, dug deep deep and tried to paddle in a consistent pace with a slower rhythm, which allowed me to stay in front of Mike but never allowed me to catch Larry. I limped over the finish cramped up and 11 seconds behind Larry and 7 seconds in front of Mike.

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Tired but happy at the end of the race...

Tired but happy at the end of the race…

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Congratulations to Larry – he was the stronger paddler today and deserve to win. We are all racers, and when it comes down to the crunch we all try to win. I can say I gave everything I had today and while it was good, it was just not quite good enough.

Surprisingly enough, despite no help from the current, we did break last year’s record by quite a long way (7 minutes I think). Or should I say, Larry broke his own record.

So the official results in the 14′ elite men’s division were:

1st: Larry Cain (4:58:01)
2nd: Bart de Zwart (4:58:13)
3rd: Mike Tavares (4:58:20)
4th: Corey Taylor (5:00:39)

In the women’s, Seychelle Hattingh, who won the 11 City Tour in Holland this year, crossed the line in equal first with Kimberley Barnes.

The 2015 Chattajack 31 miler was a great race and a great event, and it’s really nice to see that SUP is still picking up steam over towards the East Coast.

I believe Ben Friberg wants to raise the limit on next year’s race to 500 instead of the 300 we had this year, so if you are looking for some hard racing in beautiful surroundings, and if you want to do virtually the same distance as the prestigious Molokai 2 Oahu but on flat water, then this is your race.

This year’s Chattajack has motivated me again to train hard for next season. I may also bring the new Starboard 14′ x 23″ Sprint (which we used in the 11 Cities last month) if I come back to Chattajack next year, though I suspect Larry may as well. That board is perfectly made for flat water races like this. Training, the right board, the right food and the right hydration is everything in these endurance races, and I’m looking forward to more challenges like this next year.

Thanks very much to my primary sponsor, Starboard, for supporting me, as well as my co-sponsors: Patagonia, Supskin, Maui Jim, Robijns BV, Camelbak, Suunto, Velocitek, Black Project fins and Kanaha Kai Maui

Boss Man’s note:

I want to give Bart a special shout out for being the only guy to complete the trio of big, long, flat water endurance races: The 5-day, 220km 11 City Tour race in Holland, the 2-day, 220km Muskoka River X race in Canada, and now the 31 mile Chattajack.

I also just spoke with Ben Friberg and he’s confirmed dates for Chattajack 2016: 22nd of October. If you’re up for a challenge, mark it in your calendars right now.

Registration will open on the 1st of May and will probably sell out in record time again, so put that date in your calendar as well. Ben told me he’s looking to increase the limit quite a bit next year, and as Bart said above he heard there will be 500 spots next year, up from 300 this year.

And in case you missed it, you can also check out the 2015 Chattajack Race Results & Recap from the weekend, with full results and comments from the winner Larry Cain.

If you want to read more interesting stories from Bart, check out his column right here, or take a look at the stories *we* have written about *him* right here (including the one where he went paddling in some of the most remote places on earth).

You can also follow Bart regularly over on his very insightful “SUP Crossing” blog.

2015 Chattajack podium from left-right: me (2nd), Larry (1st) and Mike (3rd)

2015 Chattajack podium from left-right: me (2nd), Larry (1st) and Mike (3rd)