View From The Sharp End of Team 369
Chris Preston writes:
The start of the Team’s campaign was, unusually, down the pub. Sat over a pint of orange juice and lemonade the support crew of John, Chris M, Sandy and Dan sat and listened to Chris P waffle on for ages about times, schedules and nutrition. The club has so much experience in this event that it is a long process giving everyone the chance to speak. Chris had taken the speed records from waterside C and found a slower cruising speed before finding a start time of 1300 hrs would give use a chance of 1) winning the race and 2) having a crack at the best time set in the same boat by the Canadians Mr and Mrs Vincent in 2007. All of the points raised were taken into account and by the end we all felt that we had covered as much as we could and we had agreed a time to practise portages.
The plan was that at each lock Tom and Chris were going to take on as many calories as possible and pick up as much fluid as they could handle. Following on from the waterside series that Chris and John had completed previously the best way was going to be plastic camelback bags on string hung from the neck during the run. Tom was going to follow his rafting experience and drink pure water and then put the camel back in the net shelf on the back of the C2 whilst Chris was going to leave his around his neck and drink half orange juice and water with salt sachets and sugar. To add to this the team ate energy gels, muffins, brownies, flapjacks, mars bars and Tom’s own invention - the chocolate oats ball. This high energy oats invention was easily swallowed by Tom bu left Chris struggling to breath.) Prior to the event Chris and Tom cut down on training on the last week and gradually increased their food intake. The night before Chris persuaded his wife to cook an enormous meal of roast lamb, potatoes, pasta followed by bread and butter pudding. Chris put on 2kg in the week.
In between mouthfulls Chris and Tom kept an eye on the weather. Whilst the weather had mostly turned dry leading up to the event it rained for a good part of the week as it typical in April. The prospect of paddling for 20 hours in the rain was welcomed by the paddlers whilst the support team were less cheerful. But as much flow as possible would make the race faster and help the team through the middle and end of the race. On the day itself the rain came down all morning and the journey out to the start was very damp indeed. Despite this the conditions were as good as anyone can remember for the race. The temperature was warm throughout with cloud cover through the night and the rain stopped one hour before we started. Consequently Tom and I were paddling in one shirt and a bouyancy aid in sunshine all afternoon and into the evening.
Right from the outset the support team were going to be an important part of the race and we hit a snag 12hours before the start. Chris Carter had had to pull out with a recurrence of the Heart problems that had put him at deaths door the year before. Now having completed waterside C we all felt that this was no longer an issue for him and he himself was ready to run Crofton with us. Paddler Chris had told him to put his health first and to trust the advice of his GP wife. It was not the start we were hoping for. The other unexpected thing to happen was that Chris Marshall had managed to smuggle the fact that he drove an MGF two seat sports car passed Chris without him noticing. This was mostly due to the fact that Chris P talks more than he listens but when the support food and drink hamper was produced we all wondered how on earth it was going to fit into the car. To their credit the support team took these minor problem in their stride and got on with the job. John and Sandy who met for the first time worked as a fantastic team without Chris and the other pair showed unbridled enthusiasm at every opportunity.
After a winter of training Tom Chris were desperate to get going. This was not going to happen until they had survived the Check in Inspection. As a veteran of a number of Army Inspections Chris had held his own inspection the day before to ensure that everything was in the correct space. Despite having had a number of the British Army Colour Sergeants scream at him in the past he was amazed to find himself nervous. We both listened as patiently as we possibly could as the judges waffled over the level of buoyancy in the boat and the colour of lightstick we had attached to our jackets. The inspecting officer was keen to let us know that if our stick turned out to be the wrong colour we would be pulled off the Thames. Chris could not believe his ears. But eventually after much chin stroking we were allowed to register and receive our wrist bands. Tom’s wrist was clearly a little difficult for the organisation to cope with and it took the man five attempts to get the band to stay on.
Finally Tom and Chris shook hands and got into the boat ready to start the race at the planned time of one o’clock. Both of them felt delighted to be sat on the start line after miles of practice and numerous different boats. Andy Potter’s words of "The first challenge is to make it to the start line" was very much in Chris’s mind.
The Team set off through the start banner with a cheer and big smiles all round. One army team had asked Chris how long we expected to take in that boat and he had told him of the schedule. The responce was one of disbelief and a comment that we must have been paddling for a long time. K2s were to be the familiar view for the first half of the race as the team encountered a lot of experienced K2 teams that simply would not allow themselves to be overtaken by a C2. This suited the team really well and for the first 12 miles we chased, wash hung and overtook a lot of them whilst frustrating them with the C2 Zig-Zag path and Tom’s constant "hut" changes ringing in their ears. Often the K2 would put on a sprint to pass us before we sat on their wash for mile after mile. In addition the high seating position in the C2 allowed us to jump in and out of the portages much faster which, when added to our quick portage procedure, meant that we would re-over take the K2 for a while. This suited the team fine, but Chris was not entirely happy with progress as it was a little slower than the schedule. He kept calling 30 stoke pushes to keep the pace as close to 9.5 minutes for each mile as possible but it started to dawn on him that the pace was going to be tough to maintain.
After 12 mile Chris made a bad call. Tom had asked for a leg stretch as he had started to feel his legs go numb and suspected that he had been sitting on a nerve. Also Chris had been feeling the downside of doing less exercise in the previous week and found that his normally stretchy hamstrings were stiffer than usual. This meant that a normally comfy seat caused difficulties. Despite this Chris had decided not to get out until the first lock and said to Tom that the long bit was almost over. He got it wrong and forgot that the first 12 miles were only as far as the first lock rather than Pewsey. Tom started to wonder how the half mile before we were going to get out took 45minutes. Much apology and explanation by Chris in an effort to avoid an early argument.
Thank heavens when wooton rivers turned up and we had a chance to stretch our legs and run the portage. A steep grassy bank made progress tough and with dead legs causing a stumble or two the support team gave plenty of encouragement as we moved to Crofton. The plan here was to run the lot but at a slower speed than we had done in waterside C. Chris found the boat heavier as the balance in the boat required him to put all the safety gear in the bow in order to make up the weight he lacked when compared to the man-mountain Tom. After a couple of locks the weight really started to press down on the shoulder and he tried to remind himself to keep his head up and not to worry about the annoying angle of the boat. Tom was jogging well but both were fighting considerable pain once we made the 7th lock. Once in the water and away things started to settle down and the breath returned to our lungs. It was time for a good drink and a energy gel to replace the lost energy.
Chris had arranged for his wife, Helen, to keep and eye on way the race progressed. The DW website publishes the times of each boat arriving at 13 checkpoints along the route and these were to be sent via text message to John and Chris whilst the race was underway. This was a new experience for Helen as normally Chris disappears to paddle and she doesn't see him for hours. On this occasion she became an important part of the team and got emoionally excited. By Hungerford we had put on a lead of 9 minutes and by Newbury we had extended it to 14. This meant that we had kept the form that we had showed whilst racing waterside C and Chris relaxed quite a bit. Everyone else seemed less than convinced and remained the same until Teddington.
The Race can be split down into sections which are easy to manage rather than facing the entire 125miles in one go. The first part to Newbury mirrors waterside D. Even though we had avoided this race, partly because it was too close to easter and partly because we were both busy, it was familiar ground to both paddlers. Then once past Newbury it is a little odd to keep going as most of the waterside races finish there and not getting out is a little upsetting. The next section is waterside B and all the way to aldermaston you remember what a hard race it is and thank your lucky stars that you do not have to paddle back up against the flow as you do during the Waterside Series. Then as that race is done you think about the Thameside races and Thameside A take the course down to the Thames. Whilst Chris was counting down the miles as he had done Thameside A Tom couldn't get onto the river quick enough. At least once he said "oh where is this damn river."
One of the best pieces of advice we were given was from the guy we hired the boat from at Outdoor Active in Bristol. He had said that the record breaking Canadian team had rigged a light on the front of the boat to mount a huge bicycle light on the front. Tom produced such a light and Chris did some engineering to attach it to the bow. Having got the weight of the light on the boat from the outset the batteries were added at nightfall and then replaced every three hours. This meant that the night paddle was easy and kept the speed up to almost as quick as daylight. On one occasion we passed a support crew point only to have the light go out on us. This left us with only a small headtorch that allowed us to see well enough to paddle as normal but gave us no view of the river in front of us. When faced with a dark river a dark tree lined bank and a dark sky it is almost impossible to spot the bends in the river. Tom and Chris had spent a while paddling in the dark through the winter and had practised with our eyes closed so we tried not to let it affect us.
(Chris Marshall writes) The low point was Fobney - a dirty place at the best of times and the get in had been churned into a muddy shelf by previous crews. Chris dropped the boat into clear water and Tom thought he did the same but his additional weight meant the stern was still beached and Chris was tipped in. This happened again before Dan & I realised what the problem was and were able to get them moving. Luckily it is only a short distance from there to Dreadnought Reach where dry clothing and warm drinks were waiting.
(Chris Marshal writes)The highlight was Boulters where the water always flows fast and most crews were being directed halfway down the island to get in - some were even going to the very bottom. This was a pity because they missed the advantage of the current through this stretch. Dan & I were confident that Chris & Tom could cope with the water immediately at the bottom of the weir if we could find a place clear of rocks. We eventually found a place almost at the bottom of the weir and sure enough 369 was out and into the main fast current as if the bounce didn't exist gaining a good 5 minutes in the process.
After a soaking at Fobney Chris was philosophical as ever because he knew there was going to be dry kit at Dreadnought. The plan had always been to get fresh shirts a dry cag and a hat at Wokingham Canoe Club to get ready for the night paddle. Chris had been concerned with the effects of Hypothermia from the planning stage and with a belts and braces mindset had purchased two camping meals that heat themselves when water is added. To their utter joy the paddler got fresh clothes and warm food ready to paddle on into the dark. This was the biggest mental boost possible and Chris felt ready to get back on with it. The support team were once again managing to keep the "sunny disposition" that Chris had requested going and it was unbelieveable to see smiles breaking out. Especially as we now had an 18 minute lead.
Armed with warm kit and a smile the team pressed onto towards Henley. Tom and Chris had rehearsed Henley the previous weekend in the dark and knew exactly what to expect. During rehearsal the idea was to experience the worst the river could throw at us but all we got was a peaceful calm night with some geese dive bombing the boat. Fortunately for us the same conditions prevailed and it was not long until we saw the temple Island lit up. This was a little strange because whilst it is possible to see the illuminated folly from miles away it takes considerably longer to reach it. Chris felt as he was paddling towards it for ages. Then the less picturesque parts of the river such as parts of Maidenhead and slough were paddled but as it was dark it seemed fine. Chris was still enjoying the paddle whilst Tom was starting to be concerned about the tide times at Teddington.
There are a number of long sections of river when we saw no-one for ages. The support crew had moved on ahead to spot the next lock and there were no boats in sight. By now Chris had drunk 16 litres of fluid with replacement salts and Tom had started to enjoy the benefit of electrolyte powder once the first of his cramps had set in. This had meant that the 30 sachets had been used up and John and Sandy rushed off to track some down in a petrol station. All they actually found was the more expensive Lucozade sport drink but this did the job. Chris and Tom had also started to enjoy the benefits of the Caffeine drink Relentless as provided by Debs, whose job it is to make and test new versions. The energy kept us both awake with no sleepyness at all.
At last we approached Shepperton and the noise of the weir. The paddle navigation is calm for almost all the time but at the locks the noise generated by the weir makes every jumpy. The support crew start shouting and the crew get nervy at the prospect of paddling in bumpy water. But for Chris Shepperton meant Elmbridge Canoe Club, home territory and the start of the Frank Luzmore race that he had done earlier in the year. John provided the glorious news that team 369 now had a 36 minute lead over the number 2 boat and the only concern was reaching the teddington lock on time. Chris was elated and knew that all they had to do was to hang on to secure victory. Tom and a number of the support team did not share his view on this. At one point the text message had been passed and information was mixed up to the extent that Dan was leaping about like a man possessed trying to get us to move faster through a portage. Not only was Dan running everywhere he was slipping into the water and generally being excited. Chris couldn't understand the fuss as the plan allowed for two hours of delay until the lock was closed. He failed to appreciate the difference between tidal flow and slack water.
As we approached the Teddington Lock Chris didn't recognise it until the last minute. He even said "I think this might be teddington" as he did not want to give Tom false information again. Tom meanwhile had built up a little tension over the times and had paddled his hardest to ensure we made it in time. As we arrived 20 minutes before the lock was closed Chris believed he had got is right as the flow would be well underway but the truth was that the majority of the tidal water had left and we were left with a low river and not much help. Another mental error was made as Chris thought the last 13 miles were tidal where as this was the distance on the DW K1 final day. So once again Tom struggled against some considerable pain with little help as the miles ticked by slower than expected.
Then at Richmond bridge the half locks started descending in front of us and the three K2 ahead of us were faced with a choice of sprinting to get under or turning to portage the rollers. The K2 that sprinted crept underneath and gained 5 minutes whilst the other two slowed down and lost places. Once we made the bridge the shutters were down and we got out to meet the K2 crews. They looked at us blankly as we went passed and we got in. Chris had decided to move his seat back at this stage to give a slightly more stable platform for the last section and when he pulled back the seat/footrest assembly disintegrated in his hands (Bugger). Not to worry Tom he quickly grabbed the spare clothes dry bag and stuffed it behind the footrest. Then he used the string to attach the two together and hey presto one new footrest. Of course this did not mean he had moved his seat back at all and he was now paddling the biggest part of the river with an untested footrest whilst knackered. The last section was going to be fun then.
(Sandy writes) Throughout the race there seemed to be a steady depletion in the mouthpieces for the camelbacks with another seemingly disappearing at just about every refuelling stop. John and Sandy had already scavenged every possible replacement available from the spare bags, including the one from Sandy’s own camelback, and at one portage Chris took great pains to point out to her that yet another that he was using had come adrift, was in his mouth, and exactly where it would land when he spat it out, but somehow that one also managed to go missing before it could be recovered. John and Sandy exchanged a couple of their refuelling stops with Chris and Dan and set off in and around Reading on a desperate search for more mouthpieces and some additional electrolyte powders, now needed due to the extra demand of supplying Tom as well as Chris. Amazingly they managed to find the electrolytes in a huge Sainsbury’s that was open late on the Easter Saturday but had less luck with the mouthpieces which were becoming desperately short. That was until John met up with a friend who ran a shop at Dreadnought and who was prepared to rummage in his stores to enable us to purchase some very much needed supplies at a very unusual hour.
The remaining obstacle was rowers. James Cracknell competed in the K2 race this year and had said that he had beconme interested in kayaking when they had got in his way on the Thames. Presumably then this time he experienced a role reversal as the early morning rowers came out in force. Tom did his best to hit the wash at 90' but the coach launches simply did not understand how much more difficult they were making it for the team. Chris lost count of the number of teams that were out at 7am on Easter Sunday getting in the way.
The last section showed just how tough Tom is. Since reaching Teddington lock he had very little left and he started to struggle (he told Chris afterwards). The boat moved to the edge a few times and we missed the biggest flow as we passed the Thames bridges. Chris had discovered that if he stared really hard at each tree and building along the horizon it kept hs balance system working and he could keep paddling more efficiently. To add to this he had been counting strokes for the last five miles - 85 strokes for each minute and 8 minutes to each mile in an atempt to pass the time and distract from the pain. He also spotted London landmarks that he knew from work, such as the pagoda in Battersea park and the Fullham footbal ground. Whilst it was nice to see them it didn't really help because he didn't know how far from the finish the landmarks were.
(Chris Marshall writes) There was also the occasion at the bridge above Hammersmith when John texted us that boat 444 was within 30 seconds of Chris & Tom's time. Dan immediately ran back down the steps and along the beach trying in vain to catch up with the boat to tell them to go faster but they were already well ahead. Some time later I got a phone call from Dan asking to be picked up from Chelsea Bridge were I found him knackered on the side of the road after running through the mud.
Then out of the blue the last bridge and the Houses of Parliament appear and Tom asks if he should bring us over to the right. Chris started singin "don't stop me now" by Queen at the top of his voice and we finished in 21hours, 5 minutes and 30 seconds. We had beaten the second place crew of Underhill-Rose and Lovell by 30 minutes.
The Finish team of volunteers were awesome. Chris managed to get out of the boat and could walk wobbily along the side whilst Tom was picked up out of the boat and carried straight to the first aid tent where he was treated for Hypothermia and given gas and air for the pain. After a long pause the support team found us and congratulations were exchanged. Parking is difficult at best in London and they had driven all night and still managed to look after us. John Bennet gave Chris a mobile phone with a tearful wife on the end of it, whilst Sandy was so helpful with helping the paddlers get back to normal. Chris had no skin left on his soggy finger tips but otherwise was elated. Unusually there was no clear sign of victory until the website eventually produced the times and they were texted through to John and the team. After clean clothes and hot food the message got through and hugs all round.
(Sandy writes) Having struggled to negotiate the intricacies of St Thomas’ Hospital car-park and find a parking space in it, John and Sandy were slightly delayed in reaching the top of Westminster Bridge. Due to the confusion over what the lead was over 444 they were concerned that Tom and Chris needed to be in fairly shortly to be certain of their place. Another Canadian crew who had been several minutes ahead of 369 at Chiswick Bridge came in and the support team desperately searched the river for their crew. Then Sandy glanced across at the embankment, only to see Chris and Tom being escorted along it towards the First Aid area, having already made it in whilst the support crew were parking up. On joining them, Chris was heartily congratulated but poor Tom looked in far too much pain to risk getting too close to at first. He was congratulated later when he looked a little more recovered.
Team 369 have come up with the following learning points
- Paddlers and support need to practise together lots before the race in order to shake out problems like drink & feed rates and drink holders. Support need to refresh memories of the route to save time when parking up.
- Both paddlers should memorise as much as possible about the route and know how far it is to go.
- Both paddlers drank over 20 litres of fluid during the event. Chris felt that a more concentrated drink with more carbohydrate and electrolytes but less water would be better in future. Energy gels are excellent but cannot be taken on the move. New potatoes are fantastic. Hot food is superb.
- The support team are just as important as the paddlers. We had the best available.
Tom and Chris enjoyed (yes really) the event and would encourage others to have a go.