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May 2009
Hemel Hempstead Canoe Club at Devizes Westmister Race 2009
Robin Oakley's Account of his non stop C2 entry

Robin and Chris at Finish of DW 2009 HHCC
Robin & Chris finishing strongly
It's a lot more than just a race, but if you look at the race we came in 4th in the C2 (canadian open canoe) class out of 25 C2 starters of whom only 17 finished. Not bad for a 'scratch' crew, this was only our 6th race together and the 4th in the race boat and we'd only stated paddling together in February. I had been in training since September after a DW retirement last year. I'm 48 and bat for Hemel Hempstead Canoe Club and am Herts LCO and a L3 coach. I was expecting to do it in a K2 but things changed and I ended up doing it with Chris Collison, 50 who I vaguely knew from dragon boating, he's manager of the GB senior mixed squad that I'm in. He only really does single bladed paddling, fortunately I'm a fairly quick learner. We hired a Wenonah Jensen 18 ProBoat, very light, reasonably stable and fast.

Overall in the non stop doubles race 135 finished out of 182 starters and we were 40th overall, again not bad considering K2's are 3 or 4 hours faster than C2's over that distance. 125 miles in 22 hours 26 minutes our target was to have fun and be under 24 hours so mission accomplished. It was a strong field this year for C2's with the first four boats under 22.5 hours and only 14 C2's have gone under 22.5 hours in the 60 year history of the event. The first two C2's were ICF design,  ProBoats are about 30 secs a mile slower than ICF boats (a hour over 125 miles). So, we should have been beaten by them, but the other was our arch rivals but club mates, Al Farrance and Shirine Voller, also in a ProBoat who beat us by just 7 minutes.

The weather was very kind - just a few spots of rain but no soaking, and cool but not cold. On the Waterside races there was snow on the earlier ones, but we still came 3rd in class for the series, despite only having our race boat for the last two races.

You can't do a race of this magnitude without good support and my plan was to divide it into two halves, rather than be supported by one set of folks getting as tired as us! This worked well. For the first half we had bike support from experienced paddlers Mark Petersen and Steve Hughes. This was fantastic, they cajoled us, left us alone, accompanied in silence, joined in inane banter, and fed and watered us. Miraculously they had no punctures but did meet up with a car every few hours to get new drink supplies. I used bottles with a straw in a chest mount and Chris used bladders in a net below his seat, so we could both drink and paddle and be easily refuelled.

High5 Energy DrinkHigh5 generously agreed to supply us with their excellent 4:1 Energy Source drink and Energy Gels. We had a nutrition plan of half a litre of liquid  (High5 4:1) an hour and approx 60g carbs an hour (sufficient to prevent glycogen depletion) in the form of 3 Energy Gels - one of which was a Plus with caffeine. We'd tested this in races and it worked well. We did Waterside D unsupported and found it easy to carry our food. Others had said that variety was important. I didn't find that, the cyclist couldn't believe how we just stuck with it. 

We started at Devizes 10.20 am Saturday having cancelled our hotel room and decided to drive down in the morning. We'd have started half an hour sooner if we hadn't slavishly followed the satnav off out the other side of Devizes! Our plan was to go out hard and then hang on, which is pretty much what happened. We've both done endurance events in the past and felt we couldn't claw back time lost at the beginning, at the end, when it's gone it's gone.

It was 11.5 miles to the first portage on slow canal, quite a slog, and legs very wobbly portaging. We were using a GPS to monitor our speed, I can quite easily put in too much power and do long strokes, when it's a high cadence (of over 1 stroke a second) with a big reach and rotation and a "hit" on the catch and a short stroke that gives speed. Chris, who was steering in the rear, has a potentially phenomenal stroke rate and coped really well with my variances. At 15 miles was the long Bruce Tunnel, we had no lights for this, and Chris steered beautifully. Mark Petersen had got Chris to use foot straps and after a few races our steering was getting good and we sailed down the tunnel despite some nasty waves in the confined space.

Soon after at 18 miles, Crofton Locks, all close together, so no point in getting back in so we run 1 mile, carrying the boat past all 7. We didn't shoulder as we found "handbagging it" quite manageable in previous races, and it uses less energy not having to hoist it up, and unlike a K2 it has easy carry handles. This was still a hard mile.

A few miles after our support say, "Guys, you can run the next pound and save some time" so off we go, its Froxfield Meadow and seems to go on forever. We finally put in the other side, eyes bulging, legs burning but quickly getting back to paddling, the switch was always good. Steve chirpily tells us we've saved 30 seconds, we both groan internally!

Robin and Chris at Finish of DW 2009 HHCC
Robin & Chris powering home
Then at 25 miles its Hungerford and we get a bit of flow now and again as the river weaves in and out of the canal. Soon we are at 34.5 miles Newbury the finish of  the Watersides we used to build up on, but today we still have a bit to do. 43 miles Aldermaston, still going well, feeling good. 52 miles through Reading, its getting dark now and everyone is out on the town, a surreal paddle through the modern town centre.

Then the halfway point and onset of night, Dreadnought Reach. We stop to change into our warmer night gear and have our one and only hot drink and put the (LED) lights on the boat. We're delighted to see our night support crew of Sally and Sam Collison and Tom and Flo Oakley. We'd scheduled 8 minutes here but take 10, there's a sea of boats and folks taking some long, long breaks. The further we go on we notice more and more crews having long breaks at portages. The worst rush to put boats in and then decided they need a rest or stretch or food and block the portage. Very frustrating, we want to scream, "Oi! we're racing, even if you aren't!"

So off we go, on the Thames now so its downhill all the way and we are over 20 minutes up on our schedule so looking good. 10 hours in and we hit a bit of a low, still 70 miles to go! We cheer ourselves up by High5 Energy Gelovertaking some K2's and a double dose of energy gels and we hit the throttle again! 62 miles we go past Henley dragon boat club through the bridge and there's Temple island all lit up, but it seems to take forever to get to it. The GPS has died now and my secret weapon the MP3 player and active speakers were missing. I thought I'd struggle at night and I did. Especially when the lights in one town centre made birds sing and gave me a false dawn. On other endurance events dawn over the moors or at sea has been miraculous, for us it was unremarkable urban misery!

70 miles, Marlow, bit of a drag now, it's all in the head, just keep plugging away. I'm groaning trying to shift position, Chris senses my discomfort and gives verbal support, I tell him I just need a pee. He says, if that's all, just get on and paddle and that I'll never do it sitting down, he was right, we have to have a few breaks at portages. Getting less discreet as we get on. Next time Chris will need some speed training in this, he spent forever a few times, and I was thinking "Oi! we're racing and not here to inspect the hedges!" (Chris says he only went once and that once i'd started I did it at every portage!)

Our night time back up team, are doing sterling work varying the diet by forcing banana's and mini mars bars into us at the portages. I'm ashamed to say poor Flo got my one outburst of wrath when she had banana in one hand and chocolate in the other and was asking me to decide, I was thinking back to running Froxfield Meadow where we worked so hard for just 30 seconds, and yelled at her to just stick either in my mouth and let us on!

Windsor Bridge, 84 miles, we are on a high again, putting the hammer down, taking a few more K2's, only 41 miles now. We amuse ourselves with inane chat but it's starting to drag again.

Bell Weir, 90 miles, the portages are starting to get really messy, there are bodies and boats everywhere, its like some kind of disaster area, we are having to really focus now.

Sunbury Lock, 100 miles, our legs have gone and we are having to haul ourselves out of the boat using our arms, still trying to run but its just a bit of a shuffle now. Just need to get back in the boat.

107.5 miles Teddington Lock, start of the tideway, one last feed, our support, bless them, are waiting for us on the bank. We are one minute up on Al and Shirine, our arch rivals, but we've not sorted a ground control so don't know this. Then I waded in at the rollers to get us underway with disastrous results to my legs, the cold just cramped them up. We pass a C2 we know have a little chat they say we are looking good! Someone must have been delirious because we were not good!

Robin and Chris at Westminster Steps at DW 2009 finish
Chris & Robin
Did Chris have that beard when we started?
My paddling went to pot, its agony and we had to stop for a stretch. Get back in, that's better, we pick the pace up again. Mercifully it’s very calm but there are some big swirls and boils after the bridges. The wind is in our face so it feels slow, bridge after bridge after bridge, finally Battersea power station comes into view, and it really is it this time... We know we are close.

Westminster Bridge! At last, 200m to go and we sprint for the line, why couldn't we go this fast for the last 125 miles? Up to the steps, they haul us out and carry our boat, its done. Chris is beaming, but did he have that beard when we started? I manage a cracked smile too! Back home my support crew kids crash out, I try to sleep but can't, my shoulders are burning too much. Chris probably poped out and did a work assignment!

Bit of an epic, but put away the paddles? Not likely, both of us have been dragon boat training. I finally beat Shirine in HHCC's first mini marathon race and have been slaloming,  while Chris cruised the Wye (and slept under canvass with the frost and Sally!).

Robin Oakley

Top Tips

A final thought is that by doing the Watersides, Thamesides and ideally the Frank Luzmore and Royal CC Marathon you'll have done most of the course. However few seem to do the tideway. I think being familiar with that and finding a way to paddle it a few times before the race would be hugely benificial.

Also See

Al Farrance's account of his C2 race with Shirine Voller

David Richardson's account of his K2 race with Max Hayden

The official Devizes Westminster Canoe Race website



Hemel Hempstead Cano Club Montage