My Quest for the Buckle
by Roxane Robinson
This Race. Chattajack 31. It’s like no other. A race where the registration begins at midnight (EST) 6 months in advance and has been known to sell out in under an hour. This year we have over 700 competitors and a waitlist of over 200.
I first decided to so this race in 2015 and convinced Shawna Macnamara to do it with me. We started training in April (in New York) wearing wetsuits. Every 4 four weeks we would paddle around Shelter Island, approximately 20 miles or so. It was exhausting. Then there was the panic about the cut-offs. 10 miles…2 hours and 30 minutes. Due to family medical issues, I was unable to paddle for the two months leading up to the race. The week of the race, I realized, I had trained, and whatever happened was going to happen, so off Shawna and I went. My first Chattajack was a bluebird day. Lovely weather, low 70’s, and a bit of a push from the current. I didn’t own a Garmin, and had mis-set my phone app, so at no time did I know where how many miles had I gone, how many did I have left. What I know now was approximately mile 27, I met up with Chandler Bold and Danielle Goldston, two of my favorite prone mermaids. They told me we were almost there. Once we spotted the Hales Dam, which I thought was a mirage, we paddled even harder. As we got close to the turn, there was Shawna. We had trained together and We finished together!!
I was hooked. I had to do this race again!! So finally, 2017 I was back in Tennessee on my quest for the buckle. It was such a tough year weather wise, 55 degrees and raining at the start…then the temperature dropped 10 degrees, and it was still raining. Over 70 people dropped out during the race that year, due to the cold and hypothermia. For months after, I heard that people couldn’t feel their finger tips and toes. I was ok, a bit cold, but ok. When the race started, I figured that I’d warm up enough for it not to be an issue. I had learned how to finally set my phone app so that I could hear the miles and pace, so I made a couple of friends that needed that information also. Around mile 7 I fell off my board, and wondered, how can I do the next 25 miles from in the water. It was so much warmer than the air. But finish I did, in just over 7 hours.
2018, the year of not as much training as I wanted. The morning started ok, I met Michael Dunlap at the board staging. He was so excited, his first race of any kind. Who starts with a 32 mile race? Loved his enthusiasm! But halfway through my race I was done. I had nothing left. My shoulders were on fire, my body hurt. It was raining off and on, it was kinda cold. Thoughts of “I’m never doing this again” “I’m too old” “What was I thinking” and yet I kept paddling. Then about 5 miles from the finish, I ended up paddling next to these two guys, Jim Powell and Ken Taber. I’m convinced that if it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t have made that final cutoff. I finished with about 20 minutes to spare.
2019 was just an exercise in tenacity. I fell off my board before I even got to the Bridge and timing boat. Thank goodness the current was good. I got my first 3 miles done in about 30 minutes. Around 15 miles in I thought, I’m going to finish in about 7 hours. Yippee. But that was not to be, the wind had started picking up. Headwinds, side chop (actually waves you could surf), and the wind gusts were up to 40mph. My last two miles took me almost 55 minutes. I was actually shocked that when I finished, I still had 15 minutes to spare.
2020, the virtual year. So there’s that. It didn’t count for or against the five consecutive years that you have to paddle to earn your belt buckle.
2021 had the fastest current ever. All kinds of new records were set. As I was definitely undertrained but determined to finish, I decided that considering the previous years, I would join a SUP-4 team, “Here for the Beer”. I even fell off this monster inflatable, and took half the team with me. But we finished!! It was so exciting, MY first Podium finish. 3rd place. I was giddy!! And I had one more year to go for the Buckle!!
So here we are, 2022. My buckle year. It was the largest buckle class since this race started, almost 80 paddlers were expected to receive their buckles. I had moved, again, and found a training partner in another state. We would both drive an hour to meet on Saturday mornings at 7:15. Sybel Pacis Sierra was the best, we would discuss nutrition, strokes, and both of us finishing our race successfully. But I was still worried. No one knows what the weather will be that day. Will we get lucky and have the current of 2021? Will there be wind? I reached out to my Facebook friends and asked for good wishes and positive thoughts which I received. It meant so much to me and I used those as my mental energy.
Race morning came, in the low 40’s but no wind. It was going to be a sunny day and warm up to around 70. Finally, it’s announced that we need to start getting on the water. Row by row we pick up our boards, walk down past the live band playing Kashmir (Led Zeppelin) which is so cool. We all got on the water so fast, they were able to start the race 10 minutes early. I wasn’t quite ready for that, but off I went. The amazing John Puakea had given me some advice on Friday regarding my stroke which took me from a very solid 15 minute mile to 12 and 13 minute miles. OMG!!! Which was great as there was absolutely no current. If you stopped paddling, you stopped moving completely.
Paddling down the river is beautiful no matter what the weather. It’s truly one of my favorite places to be. You hear people on the river banks, on their docks, on boats, cheering for you as you pass. I love their support!
As I neared my final 5 miles, I realized how good I still felt. Still strong, still maintaining a good pace, chatting with Cassie Salter and friends from the UK, it was going to be a good finish. Coming around Hales Dam, seeing my friends on the dock, and then my son, Hugh. I was so happy he could be there for the finish of my race and see me receive my buckle. A big thanks to Ben Friberg and Kimberley Friberg for creating this race that brings us back year after year. I know I’ll be back on that river again.