Westminster Canoe Marathon
By | Steve Backshall
Last summer, after a fight with a Welsh cliff face (which the cliff not surprisingly won) I found myself in hospital with a broken back, a mashed up foot, and my planned year of exciting expeditions in tatters. As I began a long and painstaking recovery, It seemed the only decent exercise I could do was kayaking – and as motivation to get myself back on track I signed up for the Devizes to Westminster, a 125mile non stop race, that’s one of the oldest endurance events in the world.
As preparations for a major endurance race go, they don’t get much weirder than ours. We trained pretty hard right through the fiercest part of the winter, getting hanged of the tippy K2 kayak the hard way, by capsizing repeatedly on days where splashes froze instantly on our paddles and clothing, and you could have ice-skated into the lock cuts.
These unplanned swims resulted in ice cream headaches, lungs so constricted it felt like you’d had a good punch in the guts and paddles home shivering uncontrollably thinking this was all a very bad idea. However, we were just starting to feel like we were getting somewhere, when my job decided to send me away for the two months leading up to the race.
In that time, while everyone else on the DW was putting in four or five sessions a week, my training consisted of thrashing a blow up dinghy up a white-water river in New Guinea, and one paddle in a dugout canoe 20 odd miles down the Amazon with pink river dolphins playing alongside me. And that was it. I finished off my expeditions with a scorching set of tropical diseases, and arrived back in the UK five days before the start day with churning guts and ferocious jetlag. I have never been so badly prepared and so scared before a race in my life.
The DW is a bit of an animal. We set off at 830am on Easter Saturday, having timed our departure in the hope that we would arrive at the tidal part of the Thames some 20hours later, just as the high tide was receding and would therefore speed our way to Westminster. Get this wrong and you end up having to carry your boat through London over your shoulders as some pals of ours did a few years back. It’s an odd race in this respect; there’s no massed start, no hordes of people together at the beginning or indeed anywhere else on the race. In fact for the most part we cruised through the Home Counties and Thames Valley towns with their inhabitants totally oblivious to our passing.
The first fourteen miles of the race is just an ‘orrible slog. Throughout the DW you have to portage 77 locks, and they become like a shining beacon ahead – a chance to break up the race into achievable portions, and an opportunity to put down the paddle and drop the shoulders for a few precious minutes. On this first section there are no locks at all. It’s very dull indeed. Beyond here though things change; seven locks in close succession are generally run by the stronger crews, with my injuries though we had to hop back into the boat between most of these, which slowed us down. Then there’s the tunnel of doom – 500metres of darkness, whose walls make the water slosh back at you from the sides of the tunnel, and in the dark you can’t see to pick up your partner’s rhythm. It screws with your mind and throws your balance, and is actually a wee bit spooky. Capsizing in here would be an absolute nightmare; we repeatedly find ourselves resorting to panicky support strokes, and are wobbling all over the place. Thankfully though, we got through unscathed, and like typical blokes spend the next half an hour talking loudly about how we weren’t even remotely bothered by the tunnel; disappointingly easy if anything (!)
On these earlier sections we were burning along at a fearsome pace, purring past flower-painted narrow boats, beardy tow-path scruffs with dogs on string, and enticing pub gardens where jeering customers would wave their pints at us. Damn them all. Probably the most dangerous obstacle was the swans, big males getting territorial as we passed the reed beds they were nesting in, and would arch their backs and head towards us with an impressive bow wave. Some of our fellow competitors ended up having to beat them off with their paddles, which sounds harsh unless you’ve been on the receiving end of one of these scary charges. However, after about thirty miles things started to go all wrong. First off my right shoulder started to hurt quite a lot. Five miles later I could barely raise my hands above chest level, another five and I couldn’t get out of the boat on the right hand side without help. For the whole of the rest of the race the pain was unremitting, and my paddling style was I’m sure a subject of scorn for race aficionados. Whilst on the subject of aficionados, there are quite a lot of people on the DW who take themselves very seriously.
I’d love to meet the snooty woman who told my mum she was in the way, and told her she wasn’t a real support crew if she didn’t know our mean speed adjusted for headwinds! After all it wasn’t her fault she didn’t have a Scooby; that was down to Stuart and I being total divots. Our lack of preparation meant we had failed to properly organise our support crew, and instead had disparate willing friends and family turning up at certain places, but with next to no idea of what they should be doing. While other competitors hopped out of their boats and were handfed by supporters as they sprinted past each lock, we’d stop and have a chat with old pals we’d not seen for ages, and wait while they went and got us a sandwich. Every stop took a minimum of ten minutes, with two stops taking around half an hour each… and those were the good ones where we actually managed to meet up with our support. Before we knew where we were, we had gone from 20minutes ahead to more than an hour behind. It was time to dig in.
At Dreadnought Reach, the canal flashes through Reading as it prepares for a big Saturday night out, and flows out into the Thames. Here most competitors pull up, change their clothes and get a proper meal in. The sun was setting in dazzling golds across the water from us, our bellies were full, painkiller levels were topped up, and we were on our home waters. As we passed the island at Henley, sleeping ducks and geese were frightened off the bank and flew straight off into our deck threatening to capsize us. They may well have been getting their own back for us inadvertently ramming a couple of mallards who were too busy making ducklings to notice us bearing down on them. We paddled off into the long night, positive and looking ahead to the lights of Marlow bridge. It was however about this time that something curious happened. All this stretch from Reading to Teddington was familiar to us, and we knew each section well, but somehow the very fabric of time seemed to have been distorted and stretched. One short haul of 1.8miles that in training had passed in the blink of an eye felt as if it took an hour. A 4.9mile chunk honestly felt like it would never, ever end. Whilst in endurance events the body is usually at its lowest ebb between 3 and 4 in the morning, for me it hit me at around one as we approached Windsor. I was borderline hypothermic, shivering uncontrollably, shoulder graunching and clicking with every stroke, and it all just seemed so pointless, so joyless, so endless. There was another low when we reached Runnymede, which in my head I’d set as being the start of London, a major success-nearly there point. As we pulled out of the lock, someone shouted out; ‘You’re going great lads, just forty miles to go!’ Forty frickin’ miles. Near eight hours at our current speed. And that was the end of that little positive spell.
Big events like this are all about small victories. No one is capable of saying to themselves; ‘right, 125miles to go, let’s rock! You have to break it down, boost your spirits at every turn, keep resetting the clocks. For us, we did this by overtaking people between locks (they’d go past us again straight away as we took fifteen minutes to neck a Cuppa Soup – but then I guess we got to overtake them again on the next stretch). We got on our way at Teddington and the tidal Thames around two hours behind schedule, but with spirits passably high. We were going to finish, it was just a case of when. However, the tidal Thames is not to be taken lightly. We’d missed the main flow of the tides, and it actually didn’t seem to be running at all. That last 17miles may as well have been a thousand. It’s another yomp with no locks, turbulent waters, and speedboats creating huge washes that threaten to overturn you several minutes cold swim from either bank. We pulled in to Putney Bridge where my mum and dad were waiting, and appeared to them as phantoms, walking like our bones had dissolved, just wanting it all to be over. Mum applied cold spray to Stuart’s agonised backside (she swears she didn’t look) and I guzzled leek and potato soup and tried not to sit down in the mud cos I’d never have got up again.
The last six miles was probably our strongest paddle of the whole race. We didn’t rest once and did it in well under an hour, scorching past Battersea power station and other London landmarks we really couldn’t have cared less about, yelling at the speedboats who seemed to be deliberately trying to capsize us with their wash. Three miles to go, two, one, and then there it was, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. In a cruel twist of fate, this last mile was the most difficult of the whole race, churned up and unpredictable. It flushed more than one fatigued set of finishers, but not us. We pulled up to the steps up the embankment, elated, exhausted, more than anything relieved that the evil nastiness was over and would never have to be repeated. And there was Andy, waiting with warm clothes and a camera to preserve the moment for posterity. God bless him. 25hours and 50mins was way more than we hoped to finish in but probably about what we deserved. We were well behind Pete and Rich of Marlow CC who managed a credible 23.25, but a lot faster than the slowest finishers who took over 50hours. It makes me feel ill just thinking about it.
The Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon is a marathon canoe race in England. The race is held every Easter over a course of 125 miles (201 kilometres) from Devizes in Wiltshire to Westminster in central London. It has been run since 1948. Starting at Devizes wharf, the route follows the Kennet and Avon canal for 54 miles to Reading, where it joins the Thames. Another 54 miles later it reaches Teddington Lock, ending 17 miles later at Westminster Bridge.
Personalities to own a DW medal are former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Rebecca Stephens, the first woman to climb Everest solo.
Steve Backshall (b. Stephen James Backshall) is a British naturalist, writer and television presenter, notably on Children’s BBC‘s The Really Wild Show, Discovery and BBC TVs series Lost Land of the Jaguar, Expedition Alaska, Wilderness St Kilda and Expedition Borneo and on National Geographic Channel‘s EarthPulse series. He is also an author with the Rough Guides.