In the early hours of Oct. 22, Chris Dowling climbed aboard his 14-foot stand-up paddleboard just as he’s done countless times. On this day, however, he was surrounded by hundreds of other stand-up paddlers and kayakers, all gathered in the Tennessee River Gorge for the Chattajack 31 River Race — a grueling test of endurance unlike anything he’d had ever experienced.
Fighting tough winds and waves on a winding course in Chattanooga, Tenn., Mr. Dowling navigated 31 miles on his stand-up paddleboard, a far greater distance than his next-longest race of 6 1/2 miles. It took him more than seven hours to reach the finish line as he persevered through a leg cramp and numb feet, among other challenges.
“It was definitely the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Mr. Dowling, 46, the owner of One Love Beach surf shop in Greenport.
Now in its fifth year, the Chattajack River Race attracts athletes from across the world. This fall’s event featured more than a dozen races based on different types of boards and kayaks.
“Some of the best people go to it and sometimes it’s really nice just to do a challenge,” Mr. Dowling said.
The race began at 8 a.m. and, while the water was warm, Mr. Dowling knew the wind would feel cold against him, especially since he always races barefoot. He decided to wear spandex shorts with spandex pants layered with board shorts, along with a lightweight shirt and jacket. And, of course, he sported a One Love Beach hat.
Mr. Dowling’s four nieces, who live in the area, were there to cheer him on, wearing their own hats representing his Greenport shop.
A band pumped Led Zeppelin over the speakers as racers entered the water.
Mr. Dowling’s first goal was to hit the 10-mile mark within 2 1/2 hours — otherwise, his score ultimately wouldn’t count. But he encountered his first hurdle — a cramp in his left calf that lasted the entire race — at the three-mile mark.
Overall, about 100 people never finished. In Mr. Dowling’s race, 132 out of 157 reached the finish line. Fierce winds played a large role, he said.
As someone with a sailing background, Mr. Dowling is accustomed to checking predicted wind speeds days before a race.
“The forecast was for five to 10 knots out of the northwest,” he said. “But when I felt the first gust of wind it was more like 15 knots, right in the face.”
That was still early in the course for Mr. Dowling, who was soon fighting through what felt like 25 knots of wind. He crouched down as low as possible to fight the resistance as he dug his paddle hard into the water.
After passing the 10-mile checkpoint with plenty of time to spare, he felt confident. But the course wasn’t done with him yet.
“It was painful,” Mr. Dowling said.
His feet were numb and he knew if he sat down for a rest he wouldn’t be able to get up again. He’d come prepared with a backpack of snacks. A straw running through the backpack came up to his mouth so he could stay hydrated by sipping on nutrient-laden water.
Although Mr. Dowling thought about giving up at points, he knew he’d come too far to quit. And for his time to count, he had to finish the race within 8 1/2 hours.
Toward the end, as many paddlers hugged tight to the course’s inside curves, Mr. Dowling made the decision to move to the middle of the river, where he noticed the current was strong.
“That hurt a lot, but I knew I would go faster if I was with the current,” he said, adding that it hurt more because the wind was against the current, causing waves to splash up on his cold body.
As he passed the 30-mile mark, one of the hardest parts remained — the 200-meter sprint at the end, for which the fastest paddler would receive an extra prize. Mr. Dowling wanted his medal, and wanted the chocolate milk distributed at the finish, but he didn’t think he had it in him to take on the sprint.
“I was literally just thinking, ‘As long as I don’t die before the end of the dock, I’m golden,’ ” he said.
As Mr. Dowling approached the finish line — which he said looked like it was “forever” away— he heard the screams and the ringing of cowbells. He saw his nieces cheering him on and said to himself, “Now I have to sprint.”
Exerting every last bit of energy into those 200 meters, Mr. Dowling placed 15th out of 59 in his sprinting heat. He completed the race in 7 hours, 19 minutes and 44 seconds to finish 71st out of the 157 paddlers who started. The winning time was 5:14:35.
Afterward, Mr. Dowling said, he was excited to just sit down.
And while it was one of the hardest things he’s ever done, he looks forward to assembling a team for next year’s Chattajack.
“I’m psyched to try and beat my time,” he said.
Until then, Mr. Dowling looks forward to future races he’ll compete in with other North Fork paddlers, like The Painkiller Cup in January and the West Marine Carolina Cup in April.
Top courtesy photo: Chris Dowling during the Chattajack race in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Oct. 22.
Bottom photo: Chris Dowling at One Love Beach in Greenport with the medal he received for completing the Chattajack race. (Credit: Krysten Massa)