Pushed to My Limits

by Karen Mirlenbrink 1

I had just finished padding in the East Coast Champs in July 2012, when I got this text message from my friend Michael. It said, “ChattaJack 31 Race, October 13th: 31 Miles on the Tennessee River.”

“You doing it?” I replied.Karen Mirlenbrink

“No,” he said, “you are.”

I wasn’t so sure about that. I had been down the distance paddling road before. I got the itch in 2010 to do a serious distance race in my open water racing kayak, called a surf ski. I was motivated to do something big, but I wasn’t so sure I had the gusto to do something like that by myself. After watching my husband, Rob, compete in and break the record for the Water Tribe Ultra Marathon in 2008, I decided that I wanted to do something of that caliber. He bravely decided to go with me in our double surf ski. We trained religiously together for six months prior to that challenge, and we raced beautifully, breaking the record again after completing the seventy miles in ten hours and forty minutes, just short of Rob’s ten hour and fifty-nine minute record. The race came and went with some consequences, though, as the rough conditions at the seven hour mark of the paddle caused be to herniate my third and fourth lumbar vertebral disk, and threatened to take me out of surf ski racing.

Determined not to let that stop me, and still riding on the high of completing such a major challenge so successfully (so I believed), I decided to paddle my surf ski solo in the New York Mayor’s Cup in August of 2010. The race circumnavigated Manhattan with a distance of twenty-eight miles. I thought that I was perfectly capable of doing such a “short” distance. I had just done seventy miles, six months before; this race should not have taken me half the time. Well, I was wrong. The Mayor’s Cup race didn’t go nearly as well as the Water Tribe. At mile twenty-four, I hit the wall. I was disoriented, confused, and my right leg was completely numb from my previous back injury. The fire department pulled me off the course, and I was not allowed to finish the race. I was physically okay within an hour of the disqualification, but my ego wasn’t. I was so embarrassed. I had never been more disappointed in myself. So, after a weekend of thinking about the ChattaJack 31, I decided to do it. Redemption. Redemption for me to feel that I still have it. A chance for me to prove to myself that I am strong, that I am capable, and that I am the paddler I think I am.

And then training began. I had no choice but to do the race on my stand up paddleboard. I had taken up SUP’ing once I had to give up the surf ski after the Mayor’s Cup. I remember my husband asking me if I was sure if I really wanted to do it. Thirty-one miles on a paddleboard is a really long way to go on such an inefficient water craft on a flat river. The ChattaJack 31 race was going to be a season-ender. I would have to say goodbye to even thinking about going to the Paddleboarding World Champs. Distance training, like the kind I needed to do for this event, makes you good and slow. But, I committed, and decided that I needed to do it, for me.

Long story short, after months of intervals and distance building weekend workouts, we traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee a week before the event to enjoy the town and to scope out the river. All of the distance paddling I had done in the past, and even during my training for the ChattaJack, was all done on open water. This race was done down the Tennessee River, through the Tennessee River Gorge. We made sure to take the time to paddle the start and finish of the race, as well as scope out some landmarks. Distance paddling is long and slow; most of the time you are by yourself. I anticipated that if we had the current behind us, the race would take me between five and six hours. I have found, from my experience, that it really helps to find markers along the way to let you know how far you’ve gone and how far you have to go. Yes, I wear a GPS, and that helps your physical journey, but actually seeing the landmarks really helps with your mental journey. Most of the challenge of paddling for hours and hours is keeping your spirits up and keeping yourself focused on the finish.

The morning of October 13th came, and we made our way down to Coolidge Park in downtown Chattanooga. It was a foggy, chilly morning, and the weather was supposed to warm up to the seventies by the end of the day. As registration and check-in began, I was able to meet a lot of paddlers from all over the country who came to challenge themselves, like me. It was entertaining to hear about people’s nutrition and potty plans, to see how they were dressed, and to hear their race strategies. We found out early that the dam at the head of the river was turned off due to a rowing regatta being held on the river on the same day as the ChattaJack, eliminating any current that would help us during the race. My anticipated five to six hours of paddling was now going to take me more than six. I started getting nervous at the start of the race, fearing another bonking episode. I consoled my coach, a.k.a my husband, who was also paddling the thirty-one miler in his surf ski. He helped me pack more food and calmed me down. I committed, so I was going to finish this time.

Shortly after sunrise, the race began and off we went, headed downriver towards Nickajack Lake. Unlike typical paddling races, the gun went off, and we just started paddling. There was no point in killing it at the start when you know you have six hours of paddling in front of you.

Karen Mirlenbrink - Chattajack Group Start

I would love to give you an hour-by-hour breakdown of the beast of the race I competed in, but my brain doesn’t work that way. I wasn’t really keeping track. The first three hours went by ridiculously fast. I kept to my schedule of drinking every twenty minutes and eating every hour. That helped pass the time. I also had a totally awesome playlist in my iPod. I’m sure paddlers nearby heard me singing, but I didn’t care. I usually never paddle with music, but this time I did, and it totally helped pass the time. I did keep track of my mileage on my GPS, and noticed at times I was going upwards close to six mph, which is a great speed to hold for such a long time.

Karen Mirlenbrink StartI have to say that the scenery of the race was just as breathtaking. The leaves were starting to change, so the color contrasts were gorgeous. When we caught a side wind, leaves would gently blow off the trees and across the river. Despite how hard I was working, it was a peaceful point in the race that allowed me to take a deep breath. It was one of those moments that I’ve captured in my memory and will hold in my heart forever.

Of course, like every race, I had my challenges. I tried to minimize them by learning the river the week before, and using landmarks I found along the way. My most important one was the boat ramp by the convenience store that marked the “ten miles to go” stage. I also remembered the spots of the old rapids that used to be on the river. I knew at that point that I was paddling in water that was 150-feet deep. There was a significant amount of headwind during the race. The river bent around so much that it was hard to tell when you were going to get it, but I knew that the last few miles were going to be killer because the wind would be right in my face and the river was really wide and open there, giving it plenty of room to blow hard. We came around that last turn and I could see the large structure of our finish line, the Hales Bar Dam remnants, and knew the end was in sight. I swear it took an hour to get there since the wind was blowing so hard. In shorter races, I would let that challenge get to me. For some reason, in this race, I just put my head down, started singing, picked up my cadence and kept digging.

I finished second in the Ladies’ Fourteen-foot Stand Up Paddleboard category, timing in at six hours and twenty-four minutes. I am very happy with that finish and very proud of myself. I was hoping for under six hours, but since we didn’t have much flow to help us on the river that day, how I finished was just fine. I did crash pretty hard after the race, and there’s some video out there of a post-race interview that I did where I don’t think I made a lot of sense, then I backed out of the interview when I told the videographer, Brandon, that I was going to puke. Once Rob got to me (Mr. Rockstar got the race done two hours in front of me on his surf ski), he got me a coke and some glazed donuts, and I came back to planet earth.

I always learn something at these long distance races. I learned a lot about myself and about my abilities, and that I am capable of doing more than I ever will believe. I learned that those cliff shot jelly square things are supposed to be taken all at once and not in bits like I did. I also learned that donuts are great post-race sugar blast.

Karen Mirlenbrink has always described herself as a total beach bunny who can’t keep her toes out of the sand. Growing up on the beaches of the Florida Gulf Coast, her idea of the perfect day involves being in or on the water learning… more »