Monday, 24 March 2008

The Devizes to Westminster canoe marathon

The weekend did not begin well. My paddling partner, Lucy, and I were loading the car to head for the Devizes to Westminster canoe race, "the longest non-stop canoe marathon in the world". Lucy accidentally dropped a life-jacket in the Thames and so I had to ignore the snow and jump into the river to retrieve it.
At the start line we feared we would not be allowed to begin. Everyone looked very keen and we had been told that at least 4 months of hard training were needed prior to the race. We had done 2 outings together before work (but lied and said we had done lots).
The race organiser spoke to everyone about safety but he took the two novices aside,
"I cannot force people to drop out... hypothermia... snow, flooded river... worst ever conditions... very dangerous... months of training..."
We assured him we would be careful and set off. A marshall pointed out that my paddle was upside down and people laughed at my stylish yellow washing-up gloves in place of proper canoeing ones.
But the sun was shining and things looked promising. Then the wind rose, night fell, snow was blowing horizontally into our faces and 125 miles began to sound like a long paddle. We paddled through the night, beneath a beautiful full moon. You have to lift your boat out of the river and carry it 77 times during the race to bypass canal locks, including one portage that is a mile long. These began to lose their appeal. The canoe was shiny with ice and the night was long.
Dawn saw us reach the Thames.
Sunset saw us still on the Thames.
After 27 hours of non-stop paddling our two, brief, 30-minute training sessions felt insufficient.
We were in a world of pain and exhausted. We were dead last. But we were still paddling, unlike around half the field who had quit during the race. We were undeniably slow, but we were also undeniably still soldiering on towards the end.
So it was a shame to be disqualified for not meeting a newly-invented cut-off time [the winners had finished 10 hours earlier] and to therefore not finish the event. It was a small consolation that the organiser who had been so sceptical at the start was staggered to see that we were still going after all that time. But it had been a great experience. The night was beautiful, and the memory of paddling quietly through a town as nightclubs blared ("nothing's gonna stop us now...") and the TV in a pub window showed a man running up to bowl in a cricket match, and well-lit trains thundered past as we crept slowly through the moonlit, frosty night is a good one.
But today I am incredibly sore and sleepy. My shoulder has torn. And on Thursday I fly to Morocco to compete in the Marathon des Sables - "the world's toughest race" which involves running 6 marathons in 6 days through the Sahara desert. It's a busy week! If my feet are OK after that I also have the London marathon to run the next weekend.
All of these races are a way of raising funds and awareness for 'Hope and Homes for Children' and you can make donations here. I know I did not finish the canoe race, but I hope to fare better at the running, despite not having run for 7 weeks due to injury.
"Thank yous" are definitely due to Lucy, my heroic paddling partner, and to Claire our support driver. Most paddlers had several cars and loads of people feeding them and cheering them over the course. We had Claire, on her own. Thank you! Thank you also to Ollie for lending us a boat. He is off later this year to row solo round the world.
Thank you to Profeet for sorting me out with awesome orthotic insoles and trainers for the desert race.

A few photos:
Not sure Lucy was taking our land-bound training very seriously.
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On with the washing-up gloves and here we go!
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There were occasional splashes of winter sun amongst the snow showers
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The rise of the full moon into a frosty sky was a real treat:
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Still going, over 24 hours later. Hurting, slow, but not giving in. What a great race!
Pasted Graphic 5


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