The 2017 Chattajack featured many back stories that need to be told. One could easily make the argument that the most recent edition has been the year that the women stole the show. In addition to the Dismukes/Boteler dogfight and the record-setting and subsequent DQ in the Kayak division, was the quiet dominance of OC Paddler Sara Jordan, who set the fastest time of the day among all females (and most males) in an OC-1! Additionally, team boats have started asserting their presence at the Jack, as witnessed by the increasing numbers and flying times recorded this year. Hype Mattingly gives us an inside line on Sara's OC race and the winning duo on Surfski Double, Michael Herrin and Morgan House.
Chattajack – hands down, is quickly becoming the preeminent autumnal river race below the Mason-Dixon line. This year – Chattajack 31- was no exception and here the aim is to shed some light on the individual races for 2 classes of craft that doubled or tripled the number of entries over years past. 2017 Chattajack sported 5 double ski entries, the largest field ever for this class. And 3 of those entries were men’s teams. The women’s OC1 category also showed a banner year for entries – 7 women in total. These two classes might seem worlds apart, but in real life, when you talk to the racers, you find a lot of common themes. A paddler is as a paddler does… as the saying goes (ok I made that up but still…).
1st Place - Team Double Ski – Morgan House and Michael Herrin – both of Gainsville, GA. The team completed the course in a blistering time of 4:10:10 – setting the course record for double ski. Morgan House is an ICF K1 veteran who spent 8 years on the national team and lived 5 years at the Olympic training center. Despite his accomplishments with the double blade though, Morgan has also competed in some big OC6 races, including the Molokai Hoe and the Catalina Crossing. In contrast, Morgan’s racing partner, Michael Herrin describes himself as a relative newb – with only 3 years surfski experience. He calls Morgan, “an amazing coach and training partner” but it was Michael who suggested they team up for Chattajack 31.
1st Place – Women’s OC1 - Sara Jordan threw down an unbelievable time of 4:44:58, the fastest time of any female-only craft on the water and blowing away – by 33 minutes - her own 2016 course record for women’s OC1. Sara is also known as an elite surfski paddler. Why the turn to the single blade for this race? For Chattajack 31, Sara opted to defend her title from the 2016 race in the single Outrigger Canoe. And besides, Sara says that paddling OC1 this time around fit better into her training plan, because of her other big single blade event: in July of this year, Jordan paddled V1 in the 2017, International Va’a Distance Championships held in Tahiti.
Most racers had undoubtedly been eyeing the weather prediction days ahead of Chattajack 31. A week before the race, conditions were supposed to be 100% rain until 1 p.m. With wind. Oh, and a High of 45°F. Despite all hopes that the prediction would improve, and in an exceedingly singular display of prescience, the meteorologists were actually dead-on-balls-accurate and the racers started and ended the trek in some very challenging conditions. Few racers would have had an opportunity to train in those kinds of conditions this time of year.
Sara Jordan finished the race strong – albeit blue and shivering, despite donning her best neoprene. In an unwavering display of positivity, the frontrunner noted that she received a boost while racing during the rare occasion(s) that the sun actually made an appearance. She called those uncommon moments, “Glorious.”
Michael and Morgan – Georgia (hot!) residents - in the double ski reported that they had done plenty of training in chop and headwinds but that the low temperatures were a special kind of challenge (read “hell”). Morgan House noted, “I’m not sure I have ever been so cold in my entire life!”
The Start: Bun Fight
Anyone who watched the start with the challenging conditions would agree: shambolic. The current was ripping, pulling the entire block of 100s of paddlers down river. The bone-chilling headwind – with pelting rain (a bonus) - was creating some white-cap shear on the water. These conditions made it difficult for even the most adept competitors to hold the start line as they were forcefully being pushed forward prior to the race start. Team House and Herrin in the double ski called the start “interesting.” The conditions had pushed them so far forward over the start line that they decided to turn around and paddle back to behind the line before the race start. As luck would have it, when the horn sounded, they were actually still heading UP river – a predicament that forced them to have to turn around and spend the first part of the race trying to catch up to the rest of the pack.
Sara Jordan, in the OC1, noted the chaos that the conditions inflicted upon the racers before the horn and succinctly described the start with the words, “OMG, what a bun fight!”
Among top-of-the-heap racers, one strategy for long distance races is for the leaders to spend most of the race taking turns drafting each other to conserve energy. For the final few miles or so, the top competitors then have at each other (with fangs) with a sprint to the finish to determine the winner. About 90 seconds separated 1st and 3rd place teams for the men’s double surfski over a race that took over 4 hours. That would suggest a tight race. When asked though, Team House and Herrin indicated that drafting did not play a part at all in their race. Instead, the team relied on controlling the stroke rate and focusing on maximizing glide. The strategy enabled them to pass other paddlers, despite their challenging starting position. After that, they held the top position until the end.
Meanwhile, in the women’s OC1 class, well ahead of the boats in her class and without the opportunity to draft others, Sara’s race strategy was simple but effective: pick off as many out-of-class crafts as possible. For Sara, that amounted to catching a lot of SUPs. The tactic served her well, but Sara said that her main motivation for trying to catch the SUPs was so she could more closely study their technique and become a better single blade paddler herself.
Not surprisingly, the racers in both the double ski and in the women’s OC1 class found the final 8-10 miles of the race the hardest part. The 31-mile trek tests even the most seasoned of racers even in the best of conditions. Jordan in the women’s OC1 class, worn down from the cold and some muscle cramping, found herself wishfully (and futilely) wondering, “Is this the last curve?” at every bend in the river. She noted that the last few miles of the race present a difference in the type of water. The changes make the management of the conditions and the reading of the course even more crucial during a period in the race when the paddlers are the most fatigued.
For the double ski team, Michael Herrin and Morgan House both noted that their pace slowed a bit the last few miles. They gave high props to their competitors for pushing them. “Both of those crews are very strong and I’m happy that we were able to pull out the win,” House commented. No doubt, Morgan’s strong experience with racing helped the team pull out the win. But Michael’s wicked sense of humor helped the team break up the grind of the last few miles and his 3-time experience at Chattajack proved invaluable as he was able to point out landmarks and river conditions during the race.
The racers looked back over the training that carried them during the 31-mile race. Morgan House who was happy with his team’s performance, nevertheless noted that next year, he would endeavor to put in more water time. He urges anyone looking to do the race next year to start training for it…today! Always striving to improve, Michael Herrin plans to pick his teammate’s brain about how to better train and would like to defend their double ski title next year. Sara Jordan attributes her 2017 success to a more focused training plan, and her ability to spar and train with Sunny Jackson*. “She is fearless and…despite some bizarre crap on the Delaware River… she was always ready to go.” Jordan also appreciated the ability to get in a few training sessions with Pam Boteler, “You can’t not bring your A-game to those sessions!”
(Side note and hat tip to Sunny Jackson of Philadelphia, a Chattajack Neophyte. Sunny took the #2 spot for this class – and, she ALSO broke the previous course record for women OC1 paddlers!)
So the verdict is IN! Chattajack is quite a race and HUGE kudos go out to the volunteers and race organizers. Sara Jordan calls the race, “one of the best run races in the US” and notes that the organizers think of everything “like the time printouts in the tent and Halloween candy”! Team House and Herrin echo the thoughts, “I think the overall race was well organized and I applaud the officials and volunteers for putting on a strong event” says Morgan House. Herrin adds thanks to friends and families who come out and support the racers and pledges to be back next year. “Ben and Kim and all of the volunteers and the competitors make this a fantastic event for spectator and competitor. I can’t wait to make it back (I’m really diggin’ that belt buckle!).”