A Mad Dash Along the Tennessee River: The Chattanooga Head Race

The view of the racers from Walnut Street Bridge is one of the best you can get.
The view of the racers from Walnut Street Bridge is one of the best you can get. Cameron Flanders
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If you’ve never seen a crew regatta, the Chattanooga Head Race, a timed 5k rowing event ending at Ross’s Landing in downtown Chattanooga, will provide you with the perfect opportunity.

Organized and sponsored by the Lookout Rowing Club, the event has taken place every year since 1993. The event coordinators strive to create a relaxed, yet competitive, rowing event for both new and seasoned competitors. And if the numbers could talk, they would say the coordinators have been successful. Since 2003, when 900 athletes participated, the event has grown to 1,500 in 2013. In terms of actual boats on the water, ten years ago you could watch 250 boats versus the 400 who came out last year.

Gearing up for the Chattanooga Head Race
Gearing up for the Chattanooga Head Race LoisAnn Shannon Photography

Rowers from around the Southeast converge on Chattanooga during RiverRocks to represent their crews, their clubs, and their schools. The age-old sport can be enjoyed from the banks of the Tennessee via 21st Century Waterfront Park on the south side of the river or Coolidge or Renaissance parks on the Northshore. The choice is yours: whether you pick a spot on a bridge or join the cheering crowds at Ross’s Landing.

Anyone can participate in the event, from elite competitors to single or double smaller boats. The most frequent participants at Chattanooga’s Head Race are Youths from colleges, high schools, or youth programs, and Masters (age bracketed events for the post-college rower).

Training generally involves a large amount of "volume" work in the months before the race; this is usually low intensity heart rate work (participants’ heart rates stay in the aerobic range between 135-155 bpm). About 4-6 weeks out from the race, athletes start adding more anaerobic work with the intent of preparing for a 16-22 minute race mostly at an anaerobic threshold heart rate of 160-180 bpm.

Race finish times are typically dependent on the size of the boat and the age and condition of the athlete. You can watch single participants racing by age group, high schoolers, collegiate rowers, and elite males and females.

Happening on October 10, there are few better ways to spend a fall day than checking out the Chattanooga Head Race
Happening on October 10, there are few better ways to spend a fall day than checking out the Chattanooga Head Race James L. Carey

The race starts 3 miles upriver from downtown Chattanooga, slightly above the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club. The course runs on the downtown Chattanooga side of the river inside of the main shipping channels and finishes at Ross’s Landing. The race is a time-trial event with teams starting in a single-file staggered start with approximately 15-20 seconds between boats. This means participants are actually racing against the clock, which creates an added layer of excitement, as participants don’t actually know who won the race until all of the lapse times are calculated and compared. During the race, the only reference the teams have is whether they are gaining or losing ground on the teams around them.

From the participants’ perspective, the race is challenging because it is essentially an all-out sprint for the duration of the race. Team members can’t afford to let up on their rowing because they don’t know how fast their competitors are going due to the time trial format.

Rowing takes not only physical strength and endurance but also a tremendous amount of mental strength. The second biggest challenge is steering, which is directed by a coxswain. The coxswain steers the rowers. Since the race winds down the river, and only the coxswain faces downriver, he or she must direct the rowers to keep the boat in the best line and on course.

Rowers near the take-out at Ross's Landing.
Rowers near the take-out at Ross's Landing. LoisAnn Shannon Photography

Head Race Director Mike Connors says, “Finding the shortest course is a challenge—taking a turn slightly wide can cost the crew several seconds which could have an impact on the results.” The coxswain also works to keep the crew informed of where they are in the race—he or she reports on whether or not they are pulling away from other participants or whether someone is gaining on them, etc.

Connors adds, “The coxswain is responsible for the crew's strategy—when should they pull harder, when should they bring the stroke rate up? Having an experienced coxswain can be a big plus for a crew.”

In addition to seeing competitors and boats, there are hundreds, possibly thousands of spectators. The Head Race is “a large and festive event,” Connors says. There are tents representing schools and boats and other rowing related interests. It is a vibrant, colorful, and well-organized event, orchestrated by a committee of about 15 key people and over 100 volunteers.

What you won’t see, but will benefit from, is the various partnerships that allow the Head Race to have the roads in front of Ross’s Landing closed as well as docks, and safety, course markings, venue management, launches for the officials, etc.

Make your way to the waterfront or one of the bridges spanning the Tennessee River on October 10th and take your camera.

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