Our DW Experience

Saturday 7 12:00 AM - Sunday 8 April 2012 12:00 AM


Our DW Experience

72 hours ago...it's been 72 hours since we retired from our first attempt at the world's longest non-stop canoe marathon.  Never, through any of our training did we expect to not complete it, or even contemplate having to retire so early. It had been my back that had caused us to pull out. Rob had been going strong, but as one person quoted to me, 'you enter the boat individually, but leave it together'.

Our actual journey in the Devizes to Westminster (DW) canoe marathon had been 10 hours, but our journey to get there had taken 12 months.

Rob Bryan and I had supported Jeff and Marty in their attempt at the 2011 DW. Whilst stood watching the excitement at the start on Devizes Wharf I asked Rob if he'd ever canoed before. His reply; 'No, have you?'

'No, never...wanna' do it next year?' We shook hands and declared that 2012 would be our year to have a go.

At the end of July, we met up with Les Thompson, from the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook. The RHS has a long history of entering student teams into the 4 day DW event. Les was also a DW senior pair's veteran. He was to be our coach and the person who, with buckets of patience, would get us upright and moving forward in our 21ft marathon kayak.

The first time we sat in it was a real 'o my god this is gonna be tough' moment. 'Like paddling a pencil' we used to say. Les stood astride the K2, holding it in place as Rob and I scrambled in, we set ourselves, 1,2,3, Les let go! Within 1 second we were wet! This pattern continued and continued. I have never left a training session of any description, with aching abs, not due to the exercise, but due to laughing so much.

We persevered, often thinking that there was no way we would ever get it moving. Apparently the stability comes from the speed as the K2 moves forward - now this was our problem. Moving it forward was something we were struggling to do! Les and Jeff remained patient, we remained determined. After 6 weeks of getting wet in Alton Water reservoir, we headed to the River Stour.

We had by now managed to get moving forward, all be it at a snail's pace. However, Rob was the only one paddling, I had to stabilise us from the back seat, dabbing the paddles on the water, left, right, left, left, whichever side we'd start to tip. As we became more confident with the stability, I would start to join in the paddling, a couple of strokes in time, then a few more, counting out every stroke we managed together. That first time on the river we managed to count to 68! It might not sound much now, but we came away from that session really pleased with ourselves.

By October, we were set to get on the actual DW route...our furthest paddle on The Stour had been 9 miles, our first paddle on the Kennet and Avon was to be 28 miles!

With the pain we suffered on the journey home, 28 miles, taking us 7 hours - may have been too much for a first attempt. But, we learnt a huge amount and took what we'd learnt to make us better.

Over 3 separate training sessions, we covered the entire canal section of the DW route, over lapping parts of it twice. Our support crew had been with us and benefited immensely from seeing the portages and route, we'd taken the food we hoped to have on the actual race day with us, to ensure that all aspects were covered. We would not fail through lack of preparation!

Time now to get on the Thames, one of our canal sessions had us finishing at Dreadnought. The canal reaches the Thames at Reading; Dreadnought is approx 500yrds further down river. The first time we turned on the Thames made us both gasp!! Our River Stour and the canal had been relatively cosy! We were never far from the sides if we were to fall in, suddenly, we were a very tiny dot in a vast river!

We were incredibly nervous about our first 25 miles on the Thames. We had become pretty good at 'saving' the sudden tips the kayak would do, but even so, there was no way we wanted to fall in, not in the middle of the Thames! Jeff came with us, paddling his K1 alongside us, to offer reassurance and support. We put in at Marsh, just a short distance from Henley, a cold morning of -2, meant frozen portages for the best part of the session. It went really well, with positive feed back from Jeff; leading to a good feeling about the 'place' we were at in our training.

Whatever the weather, we continued with our training. April was creeping up at some pace, our race plan was drawn up, taking into account the times and speeds we'd been achieving, adding in, or not, the flow on the Thames, this year the flow was next to nothing, so the river speed would be similar to the canal speed.  This all meant our overall time would be in the region of 26 hours!

Race weekend;

Travelling to Devizes and listening to Zoe Ball on Radio 2.

'@bobbyonabike tweets, travelling to Wiltshire to take part in the worlds longest non-stop canoe marathon', bloody hell, she mentioned us!

Due to the early start on Saturday morning, and plenty of crews needing that early start, the organisers had set up a Friday evening kit check. Arriving in good time meant we were checked and cleared to race by 5.30pm, one worry out of the way. All set for a 'as close to 7am start' as we could get.

Race day; 6.15am, the Wharf car park was filling up quickly, the smiley faces from the evening before, had been replaced by more serious looks, everyone clearly nervous at getting started. It would be an unusual start, with about 20-30 crews all wanting to start at the 7am opening gate. Having been checked the evening before, we were directed to the waters edge, all be it, a dozen or so boats in front of us. Last minute stretches, and a hand shake with another crew I'd been in touch with via the DW facebook group, then is was time to put into the water...for god sake lets not fall in here!

There was a jostling for places on the approach to the start line, the umpire calling out 2 boats at a time to approach the start line. Our turn came at 7.04am. Rob started the gentle paddle we'd practised, with me to join in within a stroke or two...oops! Quick tip of the boat to the left, I slapped the paddle down to stabilise us! Nerves getting the better of us for a while...relax, just relax, we needed to just relax, we knew it, but it wasn't as easy as it had been in training.

The first section of the canal is just one long paddle, well over 11 miles before the first portage. Within an hour or so we had to pull into the bank, Rob had a trapped nerve in his butt causing extreme pain. I held onto the grassy bank to steady the boat as he got out and quickly stretched out the pain in the offending butt cheek.

1 hour and 18 minutes in, and All Cannings Bridge, our first supported food / drink spot. Stan was running along the tow path toward us and, smiling, he informed us we were bang on target. Almost an hour later we came to the first official check point and our second support pit stop. We threw a little more food down us, then back to paddling. During our training, we'd always welcomed a portage after an hour or so, just to be able to get out of the boat and stretch those initial aches we got.

We were now at 11 miles and still no portage. Crazy wanting a portage, because once they started, they came thick and fast!! On approaching the Croftons, a series of 7 locks, all within a mile or so of each other, we'd decided we would carry the boat passed all the locks. Having done this section in training, and getting in and paddling between the locks, we worked out it would be as quick, if not quicker to carry the boat.

By now, we were being passed regularly by quicker crews, we had managed to pass a few crews, but now we were being constantly overtaken. Amazed at some of the crews and there apparent complete ease of paddling technique, flying along with a slower cadence than us. We also had to cope with the constant wake created as the boats passed us, Rob was doing his best to steer us into the clearer water directly behind the boat, but it was still making our paddling harder.

By the time we got to Kintbury, we were 10 minutes down on our race plan, our crew gently encouraged us that picking it up a bit would be nice.

After about 7 hours of paddling I was beginning to struggle with my back again. I'd had a similar problem when we paddled a 30 mile training session on the Thames, I'd put it down then, to the rough conditions we encountered. But here I was, at the same sort of time and distance, getting the same problem. It felt like someone was holding by shoulders and gently pulling me backwards. Once I'd sat myself back upright, the same again, hands on my shoulders, pulling back...on and on this went. We would clamber out of the boat at the next portage, each one getting harder. Our support crew did a sterling job to sort my back out, the problem wasn't pain, I could have worked through pain. Mind over matter, pop a few more pain killers, but this was different. I just couldn't keep myself upright! 3 more hours we paddled, I just kept thinking of my family on Westminster Bridge, cheering as we approached. I thought of all the encouraging things people had said to before we started.

I kept thinking of Rob and the fact that he appeared to be still in good shape in front of me. I focused on the middle of his buoyancy aid, focusing, but leaning back I'd go. It got to the point where I was almost laying backwards on the back of the boat! I knew, after 10 hours of paddling that there was no way I could continue, we'd dropped 50 minutes time already and, with the tide at Teddington giving us a 2 hour window, it was apparent that we would never make it.

Pulling into Aldermaston, I was leaning right back. We eased into the portage. Our support crew, Tony and Judith encouraged us out. I just sat in the boat, held onto the portage with my right arm, sunk my head into my forearm and shed the tears! I was totally, utterly, unquestionably gutted!! Never did I expect we would not make it, never did I expect we would retire, let alone so damn early!

It was a sombre drive home. Sunday was like someone had died. Monday, not much different. But Tuesday...come Tuesday, Rob and I had talked, 2013 was another year, we had learnt a huge amount over the last 8 months.

We are fortunate to have Les and Lee at RHS and Jeff Cribb to feed off for coaching! We'll be back, we have to be, we have to complete it, we have to see that Westminster Bridge from the river. My thoughts, Neil, Tuesday 10th April 2012

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