| 2020 | 02 | 10 | leaving this here |

The Devizes to Westminster International Canoe race. updated

i was both super keen and very hesitant to write this post. and i'm sure it will see many post-publish-amends before the week is over. how. how can i sum it up? can i even? the experience was truly, and i really mean it, truly something beyond my understanding and it definitely wasn't just the one day.

'we sacrificed speed for laughter, tears for joy and potentially a top ten finish for the best experience of my life'

six months of prep.
probably close to £1000 spent.
countless tears.
self doubt.
early nights, early mornings, sacrifices.
calories in. calories out.
aching muscles.
tired brain.
new friendships forged.
and a lot. and i mean it. a lot of luck.

and the other question - was it worth it?

I can tell you now. yes. yes it was.

the below photo wasn't just 20 hours. it was 6 months in the making.

also i can't help smile at this photo. early on in the race i'd spotted two fish (mark had seen zero which quite frankly is disappointing) and my suggestion to remedy this would be to pop in to the aquarium to help level the tally. just fyi, kayaking to this particular landmark is highly inefficient and should be highly discouraged. 

buckle up kids. this is gonna be a long one.

prior to the race, i ended up drawing on the wealth of knowledge our small community holds. two particular individuals really provided the guidance i needed, one, a DW legend and the other, a support crew regular. they knew the course, what i'd have to prepare for, and importantly, completely the wrong thing to say in times of stress. whilst mark did half the work to get us to the finish line, they contributed hugely to me starting. 

another small mention. cactus the dog. be more like cactus. trust me. next time you're doing an endurance event (which I imagine will be soon), be more he. 

the what::
like an old friend to many it rears it's head at the start of January, flexing it's muscles as a quiet reminder than soon, soon over a hundred kayaks will be taking to the water with no guarantee that they will reach their goal. the kayakers everest.

one third don't.

125 miles, one push. two people, one boat. just you and the water. oh. don't forget the tenacity.

the why::
because i have a weird obsession with pushing my limits. i don't know. since i read something about ultramarathons I was hooked on the idea. something which involved a skill like kayaking though - now that's the real challenge.

no i don't know why. honestly. there is no why.

the how::
my journey started two years ago when my then boyfriend dragged me the watersides and then the DW itself. he was following his old team mates and friends through their prep, supporting at some of the portages and offering words of encouragement throughout.
I didn't really understand what i was watching. but i watched nonetheless.

august last year, again i brushed with the words 'Devizes to Westminster'. i'd jokingly jumped in a k2 with another paddler and we were having a good run of time trials, eventually culminating in us taking on some haslers. they went well. we were winning.

we'd started alternating between k1 and k2, training together and improving fitness. it was becoming less of a joke and more of a question. did we fancy an attempt at the toughest race in our sport? i think we did. was it a good idea? absolutely not.

November. we committed.

i don't think either of us realised how steep the learning curve would have to be. we weren't going in as a beginner, entry level crew. we were trying to stand up with the big boys and go for a fairly competitive run. for mark, he wanted to beat his previous effort many years before. myself? I don't know. I wanted to finish.  in a tippy boat. with clean portages and strong technique. well - as much as possible. I was sitting in the front - the drivers seat - and i had no idea where i was going.

'it's a very intimate relationship doing the dw.. we will learn lots about each other (and not all good). we'll either love each other, or hate each other forever.'

Of the 125 miles, I was familiar with maybe fifteen, the rest some kind of mystery. no pressure. but i had to familiarize myself 110 miles of river, portages and flow.

I won't lie. those 6 months were very bumpy. very up and down. i think we both had to learn to compromise and work to both our strengths. it took a while i think before we were one k2, rather than two paddlers.

'we probably have the toughest relationship:
- different gender
- difference age
- different endurance event experience
- different paddle experience
- different training experience
- very different characters'

We'd written a list of races and training sessions to get us through the winter and to the start line. The most important being the watersides. We came second overall.

I don't know. there were maybe 6 times there was a rift torn by our personalities which was great enough to note. Our approaches to training were from drastically different schools of thought, and it took a while to reach a comfortable middle ground. we were stuck in the same boat, so we had to make it work.

there were also two times my health had major implications. october and november were lost to me being locked in my own personal prison. my anaemia was so severe i'd been written off work and not allowed to do more than the stairs (though i didn't have the energy anyway). that was one of the greatest fights i've been through. then again it made a nasty return end of february. so in a way, the DW was a walk in the park.

the day
before the race, a good friend called me. he reminded me that of everyone there, I was probably the only person who would have fun the entire course and that no matter what, I mustn't stop smiling. I had to say hi to the ducks and most importantly keep moving forward.

that was it really. i wasn't fussed by race day. the week leading up to it was a rollercoaster of nerves, but once processed, i was calm, clear headed and most importantly - ready.

the pound

and so. the adventure began in earnest. after a mile of me and mark both going 'we're really here' we both exhaled. silence. just the gentle splashing of our paddles and the shifting of the steering.

After 6 miles, we'd finally reeled in the south african crew (I think 428) and sat with them for a further 5. our support crew were very actively pursuing ultimate hydration and i for one was enjoying my juice. by this point an irish crew passed us, and I clung to their wash like a boss because their accent was lovely. we passed sid as a three, he still put down a firm challenge but as is always the case, purple hat trumps swan.

so. the rules of this game were very unclear for the duration of the race but somehow, somewhere, myself and mark played a game of DW Top Trumps. the winner was of course the grenade, but we'll get there when we get there. in between someone bit maddy's finger, peed in the boat and saw a fish.

> before the race, we'd safely collected an arsenal of tools which we were ready to call on when the tough got going.
> i was sad in a way that we never really needed them.

now then. our choice to not wear a watch for speed wasn't overshone by the buzzing watch in the boat. each mile was greeted in turn by the entirety of our boat sounding like it was filled with bees, and then - one of the two lunatics yelling


guess who that might have been? 

waterside c - wootten rivers
our first portage, our first support on the go. nice and steady. still smiling. we shouldn't have been tired (we weren't) and it was a chance to stretch our legs. Again, aware of the heat we weren't sprinting the runs and were focusing on drinking.

the tunnel came next and this for me was a real fear hot spot. it was cold, dark and quiet. but probably the calmest attempt at it and we were out the other side.


crofton was a long run (they were so shallow) and that's the only time i felt vaguely warm.

by this point maddy had decided she wanted to add to the challenge of the race by introducing a truly terrifying concept - suncream. please picture. myself and mark, running along. marks wife feeding mark, her sister feeding me (like a horse I might add). then out of nowhere maddy sprints up to me and plants a handful of scream on my face. we were laughing so hard i had to slow to a walk, which again gave her a chance to apply yet more suncream.

she's my hero.

we were bumping into the support crews of the paddlers around us more frequently, to the extent we were borderline friends. i miss them clapping to me.

waterside a
i steeled myself against the onslaught of 21 portages over the next 13 miles, but needn't have bothered. they passed in a blur, calmly occurring neatly in a row and each being taken care of. every time we started to look rushed, we were reminded to 'TAKE TIME' and stay steady.

mile 30. I was still struggling to settle. I was excited. I was having so much fun. I was looking at all the things and generally having a great time.

I had a firm conversation with myself at that point, with the result being 'this is now my life, until further notice' - and it seemed to work. I completely relaxed.

not too relaxed, there was still work to be done.

at some point our club had turned out in numbers to wave us through. it was so touching, and special. they were there with us.

so at some point. i befriended a small dog. i can't pin point it because i was just so ecstatic but the dog and i shared quite a moment (he was going to join us, but alas had a dinner date), much to marks envy. i felt so bad we started to plan our route to westminster via the nearest elephant. without internet, our guesses were at best hazarded, probably quite poor. you'll be pleased to note, that at no point during our trip did either of us, not even at the height of delirium, manage to play zoo animal bingo.  

mentally. newbury was huge. it was the furthest i'd ever been in a kayak and it was the moment we started to realise what we were in for. 35 miles completed.

I had my frodo moment. I was on an adventure.

low bridges.

I finally got to remove my sunglasses for good and request my glasses. Carefully placed on my face by a pro (thanks Doug) I was able to start to eat into the residual headache which had been bothering me for, oh, well a few miles I guess.

I also requested my first dose of painkillers. to also hit that headache square in the face. 

i think painkillers made more of an impact. 

it was around here mark went completely silent. 

then moments later yelled

'hello... i'm back!'

unaware he had left, i was pleased on his return and hopeful he wouldn't leave again.

also. post newbury was quite a good place to make new friends, or more importantly be introduced to two vital members of our support crew. we went from strangers to feeding each other (it was mainly one way) but that's beside the point.

'sophie meet immy and doug ... immy and doug meet sophie'

that may not be the traditional method of acquiring support crew members, but it's definitely efficient. 

aldermaston to the thames
after being changed, we had a lift. we were happy. i'd consumed more rice and chicken than i thought was possible and my tummy was happy. mmm

there were more low bridges here, one of which gave us a clean overtake of a crew we'd been sitting on the wash of.

i also made some seriously sloppy portages, my steering wasn't perfect. it wasn't bad. but it could have been better.

this windy section of canal also started to show us what the darkness would look like, and well before Reading I was relying on my night vision.

Probably somewhere between where maddy vommed and wet feet. The green lights were switched on and we were overly excited. I'll re-phrase, I told Mark he was as excited as me and we started to enjoy a protein packed meal of whatever little flies were incessantly buzzing around. mmm delicious.

Reading came sooner that I thought. I have never felt the stark contrast in a greater amount than passing through a town centre - abuzz with partygoers and saturday night wildness - quietly at water level. we made no sound as the shops whizzed past, stopping briefly to answer some questions from a passerby (after a very loud conversation about pee) before the final portage.

the thames. I was so excited (still). it felt good to be on the thames. home ground. the thames was also the start of our newest game (DW trumps had died a death a few hours earlier). 

guess who. 

guess who was in the crew. guess who was shouting at us from the bank. guess who. just a lot of yelling in the dark. 

'thank you. we don't have a clue who you are but thank you. 

' but, who are you?!'

dreadnaught to hurley

dreadnaught was basically a festival we weren't invited to, before we headed towards yet another party island. no. literally. we had our very, most nearly dangerous, collision. just so you know that's the last time i let mark steer.... backseat driver. i'm not sure if i enjoy how long the debate went regarding whether there was in fact a solid object in front of us or not. thankfully, my steering is so dodgy i couldn't even hit westminster bridge if it was right in front of my face....

Sonning had a fallen tree. i'm still not sure where it was but as i'm now at home i'm fairly certain we made it past.

shiplake was glow stick city - and you know me, love a glowstick. they were so upbeat and bubbly.

shiplake was also the point both myself and mark started questioning the moon. half, you could say, was almost philosophical, and the other half was somewhat aggressively. something along the lines of 'where the bloody hell is it', 'what a bloody let down' (swearing game was strong in 383) but mainly just sad we couldn't see where we were going [still]. 

that quickly changed when the moon hit us with the light of the sun (hahaha see what i did). i was blinded. unfortunately you can't turn the moon down so i opted for eyes shut for as long as possible, then BAM, blinded. it's not recommended. 

I will remember marsh, because every time i go there it's a mental block. i also demanded we run the damn thing. i'm still making up for the time i dropped and caught the boat (does that count as a drop?!) and run it we did. around the corner 'GUYS WE RAN IT' before we were reunited with the gang. charlie took one hella tumble, but as far as i know, all is calm.
the long straight was to be mark's nemesis, but i reassuringly yelled again 'MARK YOU'VE GOT THIS'. mark totally got this. still, and by Hambleden we were more joyful.
it was a slight bit of bump at the weir but we were on our way.

oh yes! so as i'm typing this, bits of the race are coming back to me.

the choice to go down the back of the island was questionable. being entirely unable to see, the best idea is to pick a confined space and approach it at speed. i hit three trees. but we definitely overtook some people.

we had more voices from the bank yelling our name.

hurley was a changing point. it was also going to be where mark would take over. however.

mark: sophie this is a bit weird
me: you all good?
mark: i don't think i can see
me: that's not going to be useful when you're steering

I think 8 hours of not focusing on anything more than 2 foot in front of you does funny things to your head.

in the end we decided to keep things as they were (why change what's working) and I stayed happily in the front. still chattering. still singing.

hurley was a slow change but we saw many friendly faces along the way. I love my people. they are great. rice pudding was delicious. i ate a lot.

this was the first time i saw the struggle, not on either myself or mark, but the crews around us. but still, we carried on.

hurley to marlow
gets its own space because it was a race in itself. after leaving hurley we had been informed there was a bomb scare and we would be doing an additional portage. as we turned the bend towards the park, there was some kind of floodlight giving the entirety of marlow light, and a man with a megaphone yelling across the river.

turns out that was my dad. but we'll cover that at a later date.

our friends, Dan and Andy whizzed past us here, and looked like they were having the best time.

i headed towards the light (after being told not to) and was asking to exit my craft and run.

the portage was high but I was assured the river shallow (marvellous) and we started to run the route I had feared. it's bloody miles. eventually though we were reunited with the river and got to do a short paddle before the real portage. fun.

longridge to shepperton
this bit. i was looking forward to, but the fatigue was starting to shine through. the speed my smile would drop from my face was increasing, whilst everything else was slowing down. if we were to say there was the beginning of a down turn, we should say it was here.

charlie: do you want feeding?
me: I'm not sure, i've had quite a lot to eat today
charlie: yeah so I hope you appreciate that's not helpful

We'd done this stretch only a few weeks prior, on a bright sunny day, so it just felt like another training run. except past 1am. after doing quite a lot more.

Boulters. so. this is where I got truly sad. it was like a boat graveyard with many felled athletes. i was sad for them . for the fact they might not get up and going again. i handed over some of the luck i'd been carefully carrying and wished them well.

Romney I lost my temper with my dad. It doesn't mean I'm having a bad time, I just have around 65 seconds to fully articulate my woes. so i did.

imagine the scene. you're paddling in near darkness with nothing but your k2 partner to keep you company. mostly in silence. and mostly slow. nothing rushed. then all of a sudden the light of around 3452 torches is being blazed into your eyes and 46 questions/minute are being asked. that would irk anyone. so i informed my dad it was irking me and from then on we were interrogated no more.

mark definitely started to fade on me a bit as we progressed. i think in the back it's easier to switch off, whereas in the front you need to stay focused and forward. i threatened to sing various 80s songs  if he didn't show signs of perking up - and amazingly he responded with the most upbeat of responses.


Then. I had a low point. Well my brain went a bit mad. I hallucinated a hole in the boat and snapped at my sister before telling her what a great job she was doing (?!).

To reiterate, i still think there was a hole in the boat. I can picture the water running out so vividly, and remember the panicked feeling that went with it. i think i love the blase way the marshalls just accepted me blabbering about it.

'carry on young lady. you'll be alright'

more painkillers. i lied to support that it was for my headache, but i could feel the rubs on my hip bones were making some serious marks.

also, sometime between marlow and shepperton, the mist rose from the river like a cheeky little thing and destroyed the minimal night vision i'd been working with. it went from vaguely making educated guesses to me literally shrugging, having a punt and hoping for the best. no no, i genuinely could not see. the girls with blinding head torches made sure of that. 

i navigated the islands near shepperton questionably. i'm fairly certain if you zoom in on my strava i went round and round maybe four times before my internal compass (which was set to LONDON) kicked in. 

that's actually how sat navs work. 

shepperton to royal.
this is where things started getting a little bit, rocky.

prior to the race i had joked with people that it could not be possible to fall asleep on the move. i can now confirm I was very, very wrong. those ten miles were long, cold and very disorientating.

i also made the piss poor decision to get past our support crew at the two portages and not stop for food. that meant i was so hypo it was unclear i would pull it back up.

i think was was apparent when mark described being able to see an armada in front of us. even with the full force of the DW competitors, had they been populating that very specific stretch, they would have looked like a fairly beat up ship yard, rather than a regal battle fleet. we'd really not be any use. some of us had mistakenly thought this was a quick paddle and then lunch. 

my response was just - 'yeah i guess there are a few' (maybe 4 at most). and even that's my vague counting. so probably two and a swan. 

however. even in my sleep deprived state i still noticed being able to see again.

to describe this sunrise is borderline impossible. it was beautiful. it was special, and it wasn't shared. i cannot share that moment with anyone else but the other athletes on the water. it's secret. the Devizes to Westminster secret. Once you see the sun, you're heading home my friends. You're heading home.

[shepperton, sunbury, molesey]

royal - the final pit stop.
so it turns out i don't remember this bit. at all.

charlie said:
If you’ve ever seen a small child in a supermarket - hungry, tired, confused and on the verge of either crying or throwing a tantrum – you’ve seen my sister at the royal canoe club. Picture the scene: one over tired and sweaty canoeist, me spooning rice pudding into her mouth, my mum sticking plasters over various aches and pains, and someone (who? Who knows who) pouring coffee into her like it was an elixir. Sophie would then vaguely point at things and it was up to us to discern what she wanted. 
Fresh clothes, lip balm, and someone to fix the boat. “remind Mark he needs to fix the hole in the boat", she mumbled through a mouthful of chocolate buttons and rice pudding. Maddy was quick to reassure her that Mark “had it on his mind”. As the hole in the boat turned out to be a figment of a sleep deprived, delirious mind, it was an easy fix. 

How many people does it take to dress a kayaker? As it turns out, four. One to put the top on, two to pull it over a clammy wet body, and one to hold up a modesty towel. We then had to pause the operation as Sophie had a wardrobe crisis (princess wanted a different top), but were eventually able to get her socks and shoes on her. She was then quite particular about the laces, insisting that mum match the tension on her shoe with the one Maddy had done. I, having sustained my second injury of the night (burnt hand on a tin of rice pudding), stayed well out of it and continued to shovel spoonfuls of food into her face until she eventually shook her head to say no more. By this point they were both looking a bit more lively. We loaded them both up with snacks for the tideway (mars bars and breakfast bars for Sophie, similar for Mark) and off they went.

mark was keen to inform me that at Royal he downed a tin of rice pudding as many would a pint of ice cold beer. i can't vouch for it, other than to say, he was certainly drunk on the drunk of champions. giddy almost. 

it was here i saw dan and andy for a second time. they were having less of a fun time. 

the tideway.
boy oh boy. this was the only bit we hadn't practiced, and it had been on both our minds for the whole race. the niggling doubt about stability, the constant worry it would be too much. the bridges, which get bigger the further into london, would also create swirls - another factor for tired bodies and fatigued minds.

I knew the way though, thanks to my dad drilling the bridges into my head. the slow and lazy left bend (which against all racing line practice you had to hold right into the stream) and then the countdown to westminster. this bit passed in a sleep deprived blur, as I was no longer in the driving seat and could effectively switch off. so i did. the gentle tick-tock of our paddle stroke keeping me weirdly content. we were moving forward. we were going to make it.

the last bit was also the scariest. wash from two pleasure boats combined with the safety boats and turned what had been a nice mill pond into the open ocean. my body, which I had asked so much of, effectively sighed and i could feel my core angrily asking 'really!?'. for ten solid minutes I was repeating 'you're fine. you're stable' to myself whilst mark was picking a route through the waves. there were tears on my cheeks; exhaustion, fear and i assumed a bit of relief that finally, we were within touching distance of the finish.

when we crossed that line though, i realise those tears were sadness. I didn't want this to be over. i was angry, and sad.

the walk up the steps was both joyous and mournful. that may have been the last time i paddled dear old bessie. the last time we did that kind of adventure.

so. in summary. that was a long paddle for two fish.

to conclude.
I wrote this paragraph before I wrote the best, so I apologise for severe repetition.
we did it. we got there when we got there and we did what we had to do. every single hurdle we covered, that was the only and last time to get over it. I made sure that we acknowledged it too. Like the tougher portages, or each time we had to stand and didn't want to. or just, getting through barriers. I know for me, the thames was a huge landmark and when we passed Dreadnaught reach I remember yelling back to Mark 'good work 383 we got this'.

i was also determined to make every stroke count. every single one. there may have been many, but each was as important as the last. if we only made it to mile 50, they had to be the best 50 miles we could do.


every mile we covered was also bid farewell in sadness. i was happy to be moving forward, but sad that the closer to the end we were, the closer to the end of it all we were. it wasn't just the DW. it was the 6 months leading up to it that we were within the final 20 hours of.

i don't know how to thank our support crew. for us the dw was just carefully slotting into place the puzzle pieces we'd built, putting into play our practice runs and just doing everything in one go.

for them, it was total show time. they had one shot at each portage, one moment to be where we needed.

and they were exceptional. the true heroes of the day.