I paddled for a year or two when I was nine/ten ish and raced a few Div 9 races and things but not very much. I restarted paddling when I was 16 just before Easter, I know it was just before Easter because I remember wanting to do the Wey to Elmbridge half marathon, but I was too old. Inevitably, I heard about DW, it’s hard not to hear about DW if you’re down a canoe club at Easter! I was intrigued (and blissfully ignorant of what it actually took to race). I spent the summer doing all the Hasler races I could, and getting more and more into paddling. Near the end of summer, my coach, Sarah, found me a potential partner, with a view to doing DW. He was Fred Rief, who paddled for Cokethorpe school, who had several good DW junior paddlers. By this point I’d only raced Hasler races and regattas but I was convinced I wanted to give the DW a crack.
The first time I paddled with Fred was racing Banbury’s Ross Warland Memorial Relay Canal Challenge. We did it as one half of a relay team so we only had to do 10 miles, but even that seemed pretty damn far at the time! I was definitely the less experienced paddler – I remember not knowing how to get the platform seat into the boat – but it went well enough to stick with Fred. We trained together several times over the winter and raced Frank Luzmore, all of the Watersides and both Thamesides. I think doing lots of racing is good for beginners and good for getting a crew to gel, so it was definitely worth it. We were taking it seriously, but I certainly still had a lot of learning to do, for example we paddled the Waterside A course as a training run, during which I managed another noob moment, putting the bladder in my drinks pack the wrong way up so I couldn’t get any drink out…
Overall things looked pretty good: we came third in the Waterside series, but we seemed to be getting faster every time we raced. The main competition looked like it was going to come from the two other Cokethorpe boats; the Pearce twins (Tim and Phil) were solidly ahead of us and there was no way we would beat them without mishaps, but the other boat of Tim Muller and Ed Brooks were only beating us by a small margin. We managed to beat them both on Waterside A then came third on the rest of the Watersides, but after 13 hours of racing in the series we were only 4 minutes down on Tim and Ed. The more time Fred and I spent in a boat together the better it was feeling and we were both getting fitter and faster individually. Even though the Watersides are good preparation for DW the actual race is very different, only Waterside D is as long as one of the first three DW stages and all of the Watersides are single day races so the result was far from a foregone conclusion and there was definitely a race to be had!
Skip this if you know the race but, briefly, here’s a brief overview of the format of the race. Juniors have to race in a K2 and there is no singles option. The race is spread over four days, 34, 36, 38 and 17 miles each and it is essentially a time trial as the crew with the fastest total time over all four days wins. Wash hanging on other crews in the race is allowed, whether they are in your category or not (senior K1s start after the junior K2s so they are on the course at the same time). Each day starts in one place and finishes further down the canal / river, with no laps or turning around at halfway. On the first day you can start any time you like within a given 90 minute window and the race is entirely on the Kennet and Avon canal. On the second and third days the top 15 boats in each class start after all the others, at set two minute intervals with the leading crew going last. This obviously makes it quite likely that the fast crews will catch up some of the slower crews. The second day is half on the canal and half on the Thames. The third day is entirely on the Thames. On the fourth and final day, all of the K2s start together in a mass start and race the final 17 miles down to Westminster. This final section is on the tidal section of the Thames. In the junior race you also have to camp each night, it’s the rules, and you can’t avoid it. Just to make it a more difficult, there’s a perimeter tape set up to stop your support crew helping you set up tents etc. Fortunately for us, 2007 was an exceptionally warm Easter which made racing easier and camping much more bearable, though when you’ve just paddled 5+ hours setting up a tent is still not what you really feel like doing!
Day 1, Devizes to Newbury, went pretty much how it was expected to. We started a few minutes apart from the crews we were expecting to be close to so that we would do the whole stage separate. Our wash hanging wasn’t amazing, certainly not as good as our competition’s (we were still fairly inexperienced) and they would have got more advantage from being together than we would. We knew what to expect, having done the Watersides, and everything went to plan; we held a good pace without blowing out at the end, the support crew were there at all the planned points (we also had a cyclist for most of the stage as well) and we didn’t make any bad mistakes like falling in or damaging the boat. We finished the day third in a time of 4:55:41, 10 minutes behind the lead but only 1:23 behind Tim and Ed.
I wore a heart rate monitor (bad idea unless you want a cut up back) and it said I had used 5,000 calories. So I thought I’d better get on with replacing them ready for the next day. I merrily munched my way through a few energy bars and downed a shake, I felt okay so I kept pressing on, got to get the calories in! Then I did not feel okay… que vomiting and headaches and feeling generally terrible. When you’re worked hard for five hours you body wants to shut down, and digesting lots of food is not nice and relaxing for it! Use training or smaller races, like the Watersides, to try out all the things you’re planning on eating, everyone says it but it’s true.
Day 2, Newbury to Marlow, was more eventful. The top 15 start in reverse order at two minute intervals, so our main competition were starting behind us. It was inevitable that the twins would catch us and pretty likely that they would bring Tim and Ed up on their wash. So we planned to stay away for as long as possible, but without going max out and suffering later. We were caught before too long, with the two boats paddling together as we expected. We did everything we could to stay with them for as long as we could. We were going harder than we would have liked (but it was worth risking blowing up as we knew there was no other chance of a wash for the rest of the day). We even missed a drink changeover to make sure we didn’t get dropped on a portage but they got away together eventually.
So we thought race done… settle for third… not bad really. Then near the end of the Henley straight, about 8 miles from the end of the day, we spotted Tim and Ed in the distance. We looked to be catching them rapidly. They had blown out, we passed them easily and set about trying to rack up as big a gap as we could before the end of the day. We were feeling good paddling well then about a mile from the end we started weaving left and right. I wasn’t happy and we shouted back a forth a bit without me understanding anything, so I just kept paddling. When we finished it turned out our tiller bar had snapped and we had no steering. We were very lucky it happened so close to the end of a stage when we could send our support team to go get a new one and fit it ready for the next day. If not we could have lost masses of time! We finished in 5:03:26, taking 7:29 minutes out of Tim and Ed on the day, moving us into second. We were pretty happy with that.
Day 3, Marlow to Ham, was back to the script. The twins started behind us but we didn’t manage to stay on their wash so it was just us against the clock. Tim and Ed did manage to stay with them for the rest of the day once they had been caught. We knew from the previous two days that we weren’t too much slower, so we just buried ourselves in the hope of keeping second place. I remember coming past Elmbridge out of breath and thinking “oh no, I’m already going as fast as I can and we have 13 miles left” but we kept up a good pace and finished four minutes down on Time and Ed, leaving us just about hanging on to second.
Day 4, Ham to Westminster. The last day is mass start, so we knew we had to get onto the twins’ wash and hang there, ideally until the end. We got away from everyone else in a group of three and we stayed there for a while but eventually the other two boats got away when the washes were moving round. We started the day with a slender lead over Tim and Ed so it wasn’t necessarily all over for 2nd but in the end we couldn’t stay close enough and ended the day 4:42 down (Tim and Ed stayed on the Twin’s wash all the way), leaving us 2:36 behind 2nd in the end (Twins 15:49:46, Tim and Ed 16:19:31, Fred and me 16:22:07, 4th Kelly College crew in 17:45:26).
The first day of the stage race is extremely important. It’s the only day you get to start when you want and if you expect a close fight with another boat or two it’s a big advantage to start the next day two minutes behind them. If you can go harder than you’d normally go and catch the boat in front, then all you have to do is stay with them and you’ll end the day adding to your lead (and they are going to have to work hard to try and drop you, so you can take it a bit easy once you’ve caught them). There are complications if, for example, you win day one but then position two catches three before you can get to them, they work together well and then stay away, but however it later pans out, day one is massively important. I think it’s fair to say Tim and Ed beat us more by staying on the wash than being faster on the water (not complaining, it’s a completely legit way to win!). We might have benefited from practicing wash hanging more. We knew it was a weakness and so we practiced as much as we reasonably could and just needed to spend more years paddling.
You learn to suffer. Any hard prolonged physical challenge teaches you a great deal and DW is no exception. I think doing it early in my paddling career was very useful in helping me learn to get my head down and keep grinding away. We got to the end of day one and it was the hardest physical thing I’d ever done… and I had to go do it again the next day. There’s no choice, you can’t let your partner down, you can’t let your support crew down, you can’t waste all the training, and it’s a year until you can try again (not that doing it next year is going to take away the pain of failing this year) so you have to keep going.
Your hands hurt, your shoulders ache, your bum is sore, you think you’re going to break… but you have to suck it up and keep moving. In races and training (and life) it’s a great skill to be able to keep your head down and keep going, and DW definitely helps develop the skill (and it is a skill, you can learn it).
Sometimes in the senior K2 straight through race continuing might be a legitimate safety concern, and there are retirements. In the junior race though the boats are a lot closer together, it’s in daylight, it isn’t so physically hard, and there are many supporters to help you, so it’s rare to have to pull out. I think pushing the envelope of how much you can suffer moves the comfort zone out a little bit, letting you train harder in future. You obviously don’t have to do DW to do that but it’s one benefit of the race.
Value your support crew. It’s readily apparent during the race how much you need your support crew as they are there giving you food, shouting encouragement, changing your drinks, throwing you a hat or a pair of sunglasses, but they are important all the way through the build up and training as well. Your support crew is a part of the team, and you should train with them just as you do your paddling partner. You’ve probably got coaches, parents, training partners, boyfriends / girlfriends who all help along the way, and you’re crazy if you think you’ll get anywhere near your potential without them. Appreciate them, but also when you have the chance, try to be the one paying it forward and supporting others around you.
My hands fell apart, I’m not really sure what lessons can be learnt but it makes for good picture. I got blisters on the first day, which then popped, and then kept wearing away whatever is under the top layer of skin for the rest of the race. Days three and four I remember it being pretty painful for the first ten or twenty minutes but then going numb for the rest of the day. Cold water and adrenaline make for a good anaesthetic. I don’t think it helped that I had only been paddling a year, more time to build up my callouses and my “thumb biceps” would help. When I raced again the year after my hands were nowhere near as bad. Keeping a loose grip on the paddles helps, as does dipping the paddle deeper into the water for a couple of strokes after portages to wash grit off. I put some blister plasters on for one of the days, which are padded and make it less painful to begin with but they fall off after a bit so it’s barely worth it. I think you just have to accept you’ll pick up some superficial injuries and as long as you haven’t broken anything get on with it.
We didn’t win the race but I definitely gained a huge amount from racing: it taught me not to give in even when winning looks unlikely (even though we were behind after day one and then got passed and dropped on day two we came back and got up into second for two days) and that if you keep pushing to try and win then it might actually happen. I was pretty new and racing DW meant I was surrounded by faster people with more experience than me (in addition to all the people from Wey) which accelerated my progress immensely and showed me the value in regularly training and practicing. It was a great experience and writing this has made me even more glad I did it and keen to get out and do it again…