The year I did it we had the “Hell Fog.” That’s what happens when the water is maybe 60 or 70 degrees and the air is more like 30 degrees.
One year it was kind of warm and there was no current on the river because that’s what happens when the good people of Chattanooga don’t need to crank up their thermostats and so the TVA – Chickamauga doesn’t release a bunch of water before the start.
Last year, the temperature started at a relatively balmy 55 degrees. Then it started raining. And the temperature dropped 10 degrees. And the wind blew. You know what happens then? Hypothermia.
And yet, when registration opens at Midnight, EDT on May 1 every year, the ChattaJack 31, a 32-mile paddle race down the Tennessee River from Chattanooga to Nickajack Lake, sells out.
Paddlers from all over the world set their alarm clocks, shell out $150, and pay my friends for the privilege of getting their tookuses handed to them. Year after year.
How long does it take to paddle 32 miles? Between 5-8.5 hours. For most people, it’s a bucket list item filled with suffering, hundreds of hours of training, and a long, long grind the day of the race.
There’s no cash prize.
(Every big race has a cash prize.)
This year, by the time I woke up this morning, the race was sold out. Around 550 people signed up in seven and a half hours.
Last year it took closer to 14 to reach sell out. It sold out in half the time this year after THE WORST CONDITIONS THE RACE HAS EVER HAD LAST YEAR.
Ok so what? Awesome, dude. Mahalo. Aloha. Paddleboarding. Cool. I’m a freelancer.
Here’s what I take from this:
How do I (or you) create something that people BEG YOU to participate in?
Here’s how I think they did it:
- The race started because one of my friends decided he thought it would be cool to have a 31-mile race down the river. So he invited his friends. About 40ish people came. (One was my other friend. Now they’re married.) He started because it was something he wanted to do. Not something he thought he’d make a huge pile of money at.
- Everyone had a great time. WOW. OMG. Didn’t know I could do THAT. How EXCITING?!? How INTERESTING. They went home and told their friends.
- The next year almost three times the number of people came. (That’s the year I did it.) They went home and told their friends.
- A culture sprang up, led by the race directors. No cash, just stoke. You pay a lot but you get even more: white glove service, laminated map for your board (yeah the race is so long you need a map), bacon tape on the back of 14′ boards (yeah, it’s now a thing), a cool t-shirt, a cool race jersey, a cool medal, chocolate milk at the finish line, a rockin’ after party, a pint glass, excellent safety and medical support, a chance to do something really hard and be supported while doing it, free beer, a chance to hook up with all of your friends who you only see once a year at this race, but with whom you spend your entire year chatting on Facebook, ribbing about training, joking about chattahangover, chattanerves, chattathis chattathat.
- Scarcity: there are limited spots in the race because the finish line literally cannot handle anymore people than what are allowed to register.
- People like us (people who paddle) do things like this (The ChattaJack). It is a THING in that tribe. If you’re a serious paddler and you don’t live on Maui, this is your best chance to test yourself at this distance in a flatwater race. It is also worth repeating, it is the place where you see all of your friends you only see once per year, but who are your brothers from another mother.
Don’t get me wrong. They work really EFFING hard at putting on a fantastic event. They work hard almost year-round and could never get enough credit for it. But they work hard on the right things. They created something that spread. It wasn’t magic. It was TONS of hard work, and continual refinement, but their success likely is in those specific points.
So how do we create things that people beg us to particpate in?
- We offer meaningful chances for our tribes to connect that they might not get elsewhere.
- We determine deadlines and caps–because there’s always a deadline if a project is to keep moving and there’s a cap on our time if people want US and not someone else.
- We give first class service. We charge for the service, so we can deliver first class. You can’t give first class at $20/hour. But we leave our clients and customers feeling like they got more than they paid for.
- We create things that are more fun when people get their friends involved. (It is MUCH more fun to paddle 32 miles of river when your friends are with you. Or even if you’re so slow (raises hand) that you’re by yourself a lot at least you can swap stories of suffering at the finish line. We let our customers help with our marketing.
- We create opportunities for people to be proud of something they did and want to share it with others, which will often make others want to do it.
Possibly you run an event or offer a service and you think you’re doing those things, but people aren’t beating down your door asking to be let in. You’re having trouble meeting your numbers or you could really use more work.
So go over each of those points and see what you can do. I am constantly doing this. Trying every day to incrementally improve. I WANT to be someone people want to work with, and I only want to get better and better. To do this I have to look beyond my own perspective. It’s so hard. I’m not gonna lie. If I have something I really feel like I know could help people and they don’t want it or don’t take it, it’s hard. “BUT I’M TRYING TO HELP,” I cry silently to myself. But then I have to step out of my shoes and try to step into theirs and see where my interests and passions intersect with their problems and needs and refine. It never ends.
Unless you’re paddling ChattaJack. It ends when you cross the line or a boat has to haul you out or you have to haul yourself out because you missed a cutoff. And then, on April 30 at 11:59 pm, you’ll be hovering over your computer, ready to sign up for the chance to do it again.