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Leadership Lessons From Riding a 22-Foot, 4-Person Inflatable Paddle Board for 5+ Hours

I recently completed my second Chattajack paddle race — one of the longest, toughest endurance races in the country for paddle craft: 31 miles through the majestic Tennessee River Gorge. Gratefully, I was equipped with so much of what I’d learned in my first race, in 2021, where I experienced so many unknowns. How much food and hydration do I bring? What will the weather be like? Will the river flow be swift or nonexistent? How will my body withstand 5+ hours grinding away on an inflatable 22-foot, 4-person stand up paddle board (SUP)? What if I have to go to the bathroom? 

And what will I do with my mind? Turns out, during all those hours powering down the river, you have lots of time for thinking and reflection, which is how I realized that the lessons that make us successful on the water are very closely aligned with those that make us successful in business and life.

And They’re Off (Their Rockers)

As the sun rose over beautiful downtown Chattanooga for our first race in 2021, the riverfront was alive with incredible energy. Hundreds of athletes, volunteers, and spectators descended on the terraced landing that was filled with some of the best SUPs, surfski kayaks, and outrigger canoes in the world. A live band was cranking out the vibe and setting the mood; or perhaps letting us momentarily forget the physical and mental test we were about to put ourselves through.

Sunrise over a beach with racers preparing their kayaks and paddle boards.

Right as the first wave of paddlers (including us) were about to enter the water, the ever-unpredictable Gorge flexed its mighty weather muscles and conjured up a huge thick cloud of fog out of nowhere. It rolled down the tree-covered mountainside onto the river’s surface, gently drifting towards us until we were fully immersed in its pillowy grasp.

The start gun went off and a bagpipe player wailed away. Off we, and hundreds of others, went into the ever-more-dense fog. It was like a movie. We could barely see 20 feet in any direction. People just disappeared around us. It was amazing. 

As awesome, and challenging, as it was, we had to focus and remember our training: communicate, get in rhythm, and pace ourselves. It was going to be a long day.

What Lies Ahead

That first year competing in Chattajack was one of the coolest experiences of my life. The fog lifted after an hour or so, the river flow was super fast, the sun was out, temps were moderate, skies were blue, and wind wasn’t much of a factor. With the perfect conditions, and leaning on our training and preparation, we set a course record in the four-man SUP category, finishing in 5 hours and 4 minutes.

Trophy in the shape of a paddle board with a medal alongside it.

The experience of our second Chattajack, on October 22, 2022, was just as amazing as the first time, albeit with a little less jitters, less unknowns, and more knowledge under our belt.

Still, there were surprises. This year, while the weather was absolutely gorgeous, the river gave us zero current. As we headed upstream to the start line and waited on our boards for the start gun, we realized nobody was drifting back downstream. Everybody was absolutely still, like we were back home at Stone Mountain Lake on a windless day of training. We knew right then it was going to be a longer, even more physically demanding day than last year. But we were ready.

Lessons From the Slog

As I mentioned at the beginning, in spite of the excitement, races like these give you a lot of time to think. Which is where I put together that in addition to the extreme challenge (and fun) the Chattajack endurance race gives us, we also gained so many important lessons that can be helpful for anyone running their own company, working with clients, collaborating with colleagues, or leading a team. Here’s where my mind went in the nearly 11 combined hours of Chattajack racing: 

  • Strategy: from the beginning of training, we discussed our plan thoroughly, including how we wanted to approach the race, how we would take quick hydration and food breaks, and what to do in different scenarios we might face along the way.
  • Communication + Teamwork = Rhythm
    • On the massive inflatable board, it’s immediately evident when our paddle strokes aren’t synced up. We lurch, stumble, and lose speed. It is paramount that we work together so we can keep the board moving fast and straight. And this all starts with constant communication: when to switch sides, when to turn, when to push it or pull back, when to move to a different part of the river. That teamwork keeps us in rhythm and charging ahead.

These two short videos, from the start and finish of this year’s race, demonstrate this.

At the start, we immediately sync up.
At the finish, 31 miles later, we’re still in sync, even with legs shaking and bodies aching.
  • Course correction: sometimes you get off course, and that’s ok. Recognize it and adjust. 
  • Mental strength: endurance races obviously require a certain level of physical strength and fitness, but equally as important is mental strength: grit, willpower, the ability to push through when you hit a proverbial wall. Remind yourself you can absolutely do this. One trick is to break the race into smaller, more easily attainable chunks.
  • Keep looking ahead and be prepared to adjust: from big boat wakes, to dead water, to swirling eddies, the river throws all manner of challenges at racers that must be navigated. Accept that will happen and be prepared to maneuver through obstacles while moving ahead.
  • Know when to take a break: we all remind each other to take brief hydration and food breaks, which also allow us to rest our legs and arms for a minute. It slows us down temporarily, but it benefits us in the end by keeping us fueled and with enough reserves to finish strong.
  • And, what should be a non-negotiable: have fun!
Four paddle boarders on one paddle board finish the 2022 Chattajack race.

As we crossed the finish line this second year, a tidal wave of emotion and unbelievable sense of accomplishment flooded over me. I was exhausted, physically and mentally. I was hurting. And I was so happy. So proud of us. It took us 37 minutes longer — 5 hours and 41 minutes — and was much more strenuous than the previous year. But we did it. We conquered Chattajack again. When the 2023 race rolls around, we’ll be even more prepared and confident on the water. And I hope these lessons do the same for you as you plan for continued growth and success

Four paddle boarders on one paddle board at the foggy start of the 2021 Chattajack race.