Hemel Hempstead Canoe Club at Devizes Westmister Race 2009
David Richardson's Account of his non stop K2 entry (plus top tips for novices)
“A good race usually ends with the paddlers unable to walk. Support crews should be ready to carry the paddlers up from the river….”
We read those words on holiday in Devon almost 12 months ago to the day once we had committed to taking on the craziest challenge either of us had ever faced. Especially as we were new to kayaking.
At 9.30pm on Easter Sunday despite our extreme fatigue we were actually walking up the steps beneath County Hall to meet our families, full of a sense of pride and achievement in having delivered against both of our goals:
- Finishing (40 crews failed to finish)
- Beating the 30 hour mark (we finished in 29 hours 28 minutes, 117th out of 176 starters)
The previous day we set off from Devizes Wharf at 4pm fit in body and mind ready for the most extreme physical challenge either of us had ever faced. We had been training since June 2008, had lost over 3 stone between us, completed 6 warm up races in February and March covering over 150 miles, had invested time in meticulous planning and brought together a fantastic support crew of 6 led by Catherine and Sarah who between them were to make 4 main stops with us and over 20 quick “refuelling” stops over the next 30 hours.
Having navigated the Bruce Tunnel and run 1 ¼ miles carrying the kayak around the seven Crofton Locks we eventually arrived at Newbury eight hours later, at midnight, for our first main stop where we took on food and warmed up ahead of the 20 mile run through Reading completing the canal section of the race. Refreshed we set off for the next stage in complete darkness to navigate the locks and low swing bridges of the lower Kennet & Avon Canal.
In the murky darkness obstacles appeared from nowhere and we almost struck a 12 ft long log at 5mph at one stage, a collision that would have put pay to the whole escapade. By 5am we had exited the canal and reached the Thames where the longer runs between locks were physically and mentally more demanding. By this time we were both struggling with bicep/shoulder problems and learning fast to paddle through the pain but we were given a huge lift at the 70 mile mark by the reception we received from our whole support crew of 8 at Marlow and we arrived to cheering and warm soup – magic!
It was now 8am on the Sunday morning and with still 55 miles to go, the finish line seemed a long way off. We had decided to set ourselves small goals and never discussed how long to the end. Or focus was on the distance to the next lock, or the next meeting point with our support crew and thoughts were turned to thinking about what they would have for us, tuna sandwiches?, jelly babies?. Flapjack?...anything to take our minds through the pain we were feeling. The fatigue was visible and there were moments when our support crew were concerned about how we were but neither of us could contemplate not finishing the course. In this stretch we began to encounter some of the thoughtful (NOT) Thames cruisers who insisted on powering to the speed limit with their wakes capsizing several kayaks though fortunately not our fatboy, ultra stable Kirton Tasmin, not built for speed but for dry passage!
Reaching Teddington Lock and the Thames Tideway was the defining moment. We knew that if we reached there, refuelled and departed by 6.30pm we had a good chance of finishing within 30 hours and our spirits were lifting enough to compensate for Max’s aching back and David’s damaged shoulder. Setting off for the final 17 mile stretch was a blur. Max led from the front on we set off heads down, paddles swirling to reach the finish line and relief from the pain. The realisation we would do it sank in when we started to see the floodlight sights of the City of Westminster.
After having spent 9 months in training and almost 30 hours in our kayak we were helped out of our seats at the steps of County Hall and walked up the steps together with the sense of pride in our achievement gradually sinking in.
Our efforts however would have counted for nothing without the tremendous support we had from everyone who sponsored us, raising almost £6,000 for the Pepper Foundation, and the support and care from our wonderful support team Catherine, Sarah, Phil, George, Judith and Kevin who kept us going though our lowest points. So 125 miles, 77 portages, over 120,000 paddle strokes the DW was “ticked” off and in the immortal words borrowed from Sir Steve Redgrave “if we ever get back in a boat again shoot us”.
Thanks to everyone for their support and encouragement.
Top Tips for Novices
- Don’t be daunted or be put off – it’s doable for novices if you invest the time
- Start early when the canal is nice and peachy warm and get tetanus shots up to date!
- Try a few boats and err on the side of caution when it comes to boat stability
- Consider a-symmetric paddles not wing paddles (when you get tired your arms drop and wing paddles are less effective)
- Practice portaging again and again, what you lack in boat speed you can gain (some back) in speed of portage
- Paddle min of twice per week and try to get 2-3 gym visits in as well
- Enter as many warm up races as you can, they are invaluable (Watersides & Thamesides)
- Set yourself a target and don’t get disheartened when you get overtaken, race yourself not others
- Get your support crew lined up early, they are critical and need to practise too
- Ask for advice, from the club or places like Marsport who were fantastic