Monday 25 April 2011

Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race

Its not cycling i know but a long standing commitment to help two good mates attempt the Devises-Westminster Canoe marathon took me away from two wheels over Easter. "DW",as those in the know refer to the race, is a 125 mile adventure, starting in the English market town of Devizes in rural Wiltshire and following a route along the Kennet & Avon canal and the River Thames to the finish at Westminster, opposite the Houses of Parliament. First run in 1948, early unsupported crews were taking over 75 hours to reach the capital. Modern day crews, with back up teams can complete the distance in under 20 hours with the current record standing at 15 hours 34 mins,set in 1979. This truly is a test of Stamina, Endurance, tenacity and skill.

I have known Phil Dade & Tony Richards for well over 20 years. Both are well experienced in endurance sport, Marathons, long distance triathlons, Cycling, trekking, canoeing, between them they have done it all and this pair do not lie down easily. Our job as the support team (there were 6 of us in 2 cars) was to provide food,fluid, mechanical, basic medical and moral support. With 77 portages (locks & weirs) to negotiate,we had plenty of opportunity to cheer Phil & Tony on as they pulled their kayak from the water onto the towpath, shouldered it and jogged over the obstacle to re-enter the water on the other side.
The warm dry Spring had led to lower than usual water levels and conditions were looking very good, at least on the canal section, (the later river section would be slower because of this), (literally, a float day!), perhaps even too hot. Starting at 10am on Saturday morning, things went very well for Phil & Tony early on, both support teams reporting trouble free portages, feeding well, up on schedule and good morale.

As nightfall came, then inevitably, the pace slowed. Lights had been fitted to the boat before the last of the sun had disappeared and a compulsory portage, at dreadnought,Reading, some 11 hours in, afforded time for some more substantial rations. This also saw the end of the canal and the start of the Thames section.
Racing through the dark hours proved as much of a challenge for the support teams as the paddlers,as navigating our way to the different locks and weirs presented its own problems.However the night was unseasonably mild, some light rain and,later, thunder & lighning in the distance to illuminate us. Phil had started to suffer with back problems. Some massage and first aid from daughter Lisa kept him on the water though and as Sunday dawned we started to grow in confidence that we were on our way to town. The 145 other crews in the race would, no doubt, all have their own story to tell on Westminster Bridge.
Somewhere between Widsor Castle and Chertsey Lock, Tony developed an ache in his left shoulder which quickly became too debilitating to continue. After over 20 hours of paddling, and more than 90 miles covered, the duo had to take the agonising decision to Abandon Stopping under a road bridge, they dragged the kayak up the bank onto the hard shoulder of the A30 and we took the depressing call from their emergency phone.
Not many words were spoken as we quickly got them into dry clothes and loaded up the cars. A couple of hours later we were unloading at Tonys place in Blandford, Dorset, the eight of us had been up for over 30 hours and there were a few tired eyes. However, i know these two well and DNF does not sit comfortably alongside their names. I have a feeling they will be back next year and despite the support teams already claiming to have prior engagements i guess we will too! For the record, University pair, Richard Hendron & James King won the race with a time of 18.08.00 nearly 3 hours off the record set over 30 years ago, so, not such a float day after all!

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