The other side of the finish line





(All photos courtesy Chattajack.)

One recent Saturday I drove thirty minutes to Hale’s Bar Marina on Nickajack Lake. I had signed up to volunteer for the Chattajack 31, a kayak, canoe, and paddleboard race on the Tennessee River, from downtown Chattanooga to the marina where I was to work the finish.

Grey drizzle and chill wind kept us all layered up as the timing crew arrived with tents, tables, chairs, and loads of electronic gear.

Looming over us was the derelict remains of the Hale’s Bar power station, its massive stone walls, broken windows, and flocks of pigeons creating an apocalyptic vibe next to the piers of houseboats, fishing yachts, and the friendly small marina store.

More volunteers arrived, along with the person who would be in charge of us. I got my bright-yellow shirt and started helping with setup.

As it happened, I worked the day as part of the finish-line crew who helped get boats and their paddlers up onto the pier, carried their boats up to the parking lot, and helped them basically reconnect with existence out of the water and on firm walking surfaces. Our standard advice to the finishers once they exited their boats and reached the concrete dock was to stand up and be still for a few moments, to let the blood return to legs and for nerves and muscles to recommence their normal operations.

(The finishers' take-out crew.)

The paddlers left Chattanooga's riverfront at 10 am, and just under four hours later the first-place finisher, a tandem surfski, crossed the finish line. Another tandem surfski followed, just twelve seconds later, and third was a six-person outrigger canoe. The first kayak arrived an hour later, and the fastest SUP (stand-up paddleboard) made it in 5:14:16. The last finisher arrived eight and a half hours after the start.

For hours in between, they streamed in: outrigger canoes and Old Town classic canoes that weighed a ton, racing kayaks, and eventually, the paddleboards. The contestants arrived in every size, shape, apparent fitness level, age, and demographic group. Some had to be literally dragged onto the pier; others nimbly hopped up after six hours of headwind and chill.

There were families there to support the paddlers, and significant others, and friends. Two women in hippo costumes. Lots of cowbells (some handed out by the race). Family disobeying the rules and rushing to the pier to hug their loved ones. Men with shivering lips, women whose feet refused to work for a moment.

There was the paddleboard with a speaker bungeed to its bow, blaring metal as its middle-aged male captain paddled up. I noticed a healthy sprinkling of Aussie accents among the contestants.

There were 478 paddlers at the start, of whom 439 finished. So there were 39 DNFs (Did Not Finish), including a few who, we were told, got out of the water at the first cutoff, 10 miles in.

(The race began in 2012, and five-time finishers earn a belt buckle.)

Mountaineers were the first to be described (by one of their own, in fact) as "conquerors of the useless."  You can argue that their achievements do little to serve society, or make the world a better place. You could say the same about the Chattajack finishers, or marathoners, or any of the ways in which humans challenge themselves. But, really, so what? "What a waste of time and money, " I imagine people saying about Chattajack as they dust off their collection of Delft figurines or devote Saturdays to SEC football. The point is, it's all good. Doing things for their own sake, or for our own sake, is totally defensible.I entered my first triathlon in the mid-80s, and ever since have participated in running and cycling events of various lengths. But Chattajack was my first time volunteering at a race. Standing on the other side of the finish line for the first time, I was inspired by those who maneuvered their crafts to our take-out pier after 25 miles of headwind and little current, for no tangible reward other than a finisher's medal and a bottle of chocolate milk.From my vantage point, it was obvious that most if not all of those paddlers had learned something about themselves, and perhaps about life, in the intervening hours on the Tennessee River. That's what the training, and the expense, and the pain and cold and soreness, are for.That's why, before too much time has passed, I'll probably be back out there for a trail marathon, or some other race. Who knows? Perhaps next October I'll look for my own lessons on the river, paddling the Chattajack.