Senior K1 Race
The Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon or DW, is one of the toughest canoe and kayak marathons in the world. Held every Easter since 1948, the course covers 125 miles (201km) from the small town of Devizes in Wiltshire all the way along the Kennet & Avon Canal and the River Thames to Westminster Bridge in the heart of London City.
Over the Easter weekend there are two races taking place. The non-stop K2 event starts on Saturday and crews paddle non-stop through the night until they reach Westminster on Sunday morning. The second event is a four day stage race for senior K1's and Juniors that starts on Friday and finishes at Westminster on Monday morning.
This year I was taking on the senior K1 event for the first time. I completed the non-stop K2 race in 2013 with Jim Mescal in a time of 20:49, but the K1 race is completely different challenge and there was a lot of unknowns going into the race. Like would I be able to get up each morning and race long distances 4 days in a row?
Day 1 "Tunnel Vision"
55 km from Devizes to Newbury-36 portages.
Before the race this was the day that was occupying my mind the most for a number of reasons. On the first day there is no start list or start order. Each category is given a start window. The senior K1 was from 9:30 to 10:30am. The problem with this as the only Irish paddler in the 4 day race is that you do not know any of the other competitors and so have no plan for working together to cover the first challenge of the course which you face straight off the startline. Known as "The Pound", this is a very long and backside numbing 25kms stretch of shallow canal with no portages. Paddling this on your own is very challenging so it is better to work with other competitors to get through it as fast as possible.
As I got on the water shortly after 10am I noticed a few other K1's set off. For fear of having to work the "Pound" on my own I quickly got to the startline and began chasing them down. Now this is not ideal tactics for a 36 mile stage but the adrenaline was pumping and it felt good to be moving. My heart rate at this stage was way too high -175bpm! and I was worrying that I might blow up before I even got to the first portage. So I tried to settle into a rhythm but it continued to pump... I managed to join the group ahead and settled into a nice rhythm.
We finally made it to the first portage and the relief of getting out of the kayak. But then starts the 36 portages in just over 20 miles. Also up ahead is the 500 metre long Bruce Tunnel. Once you enter it is complete darkness only for the small light at the exit. Racing kayaks are very difficult to balance in daylight but when you can't see your hand in front of your face it's extremely difficult!
After this comes another major challenge on the course, the famous Crofton flight. A mile of locks very close together so running all of them in one go is often the best option. I opted to run two, paddle one and then run again. The mud made running very difficult and the risk of slipping and damaging yourself or the kayak was real.
The rest of the stage is generic canal with a portage every mile or less, as well as a hand full of very low bridges to navigate. I finally reached Newbury in 5:33:57 and in 12th place.
Day 2 "Headwind"
59km from Newbury to Marlow-28 portages.
On the second and third morning the top 15 start last at 2 minute intervals, with the slowest first. The first 30km of day 2 are still on canal but the Kennet River weaves in and out giving a small bit of assistance. After the previous day of portages and slow shallow canal everyone is eager to get to Reading and the deep water of the Thames and where there is more distance between portages. I worked hard off the line, but managed my HR much better than day 1. By the time we reached the outskirts of Reading I had caught the paddlers ahead of me. Unfortunately our relief of reaching the Thames was beaten back by a very stiff head wind. This made progress grind to a slog and river conditions very bumpy in places like Henley. The target for day 2 was around 5hrs 30min but the headwind put at least 15 minutes on my time and took a lot of energy. Marlow felt like a distant place I would never reach but eventually it came. I wasnt the only one to suffer because of the headwind as I finished in 5:45:49 and moved up to 10th place.
Day 3 "Tactical Slip"
60 km from Marlow to Teddington
I felt good on the third morning and set off from Marlow at a steady work rate. Within an 1hr 20min I had caught the kayak ahead of me and we worked together for a few km's. As the two hour mark approached we anticipated the faster crews catching us.
We got to Windsor before the first of the leaders arrived. I worked hard to keep with them as they pushed on but the very choppy river conditions caused by the pleasure boats combined with a lot of water in my kayak had me struggling to stay in control. Eventually I fell off the wash and the group pulled away. I kept moving but had expended a lot of energy in the last few km's. As I tried to get back into a rhythm the next pack arrived but on the far side of a very busy river. There was no point crossing as they were already pulling away and I was a trying to recover...
The next few km is a blur until I joined a group of two other paddlers. I sat on the wash getting my energy levels back and then it was my turn to lead. Foolishly I went up and set too high a pace. It would cost me within a few minutes after the next portage. As we pulled out of the lock there was a burn and as I dug deep to keep the pace and reform the group ,there was nothing left. I was wrecked and I knew there were no fast crews left to come through... I pushed on but I knew if the guys ahead joined the fast groups they would put a lot of distance on me and ultimately reduce my lead.
At this point I was only about 10km from the finish but it was a long way on your own. When you are on your own all the pain becomes worse. Your focus becomes internal and you feel every ache. Especially your backside! As I got near Teddington I was feeling as bad as I did during the non-stop race after 18 hours. Eventually Teddington lock came into sight and I got to the finish line shortly afterwards.
Getting off the water I was suffering worse than ever before. I had pains up my back and could barely talk for about 10 minutes. A quick check of the leaderboard in the carpark and I had slipped back to 12th place. The stage time was 5:13:25
Day 4 "The Tideway"
26km from Teddington to Westminster Bridge, no portages.
The final day begins with a mass start just after high tide. This year it was 4:50am. This meant getting up at 3am and being ready for kit check at 4am. By this stage your gluteus maximus are very sore and the thought of having a solid 2 hours with no portages is not pleasant but everyone is suffering the same.
I had a feeling that if I could get a good start and hold on to a fast group for the tideway I might make my goal of a 18:30 total time and it would all be over that little bit faster.
Thankfully I did get good start and into the second group of 6 that formed. There was some shuffling of positions and luckily I was in the right place to move up when the group began to break. Within seconds we were down to 4 and steaming towards London. I managed to put in one lead but I was so exhausted that I was just about able to hold on to the group. It was too dark to see my watch in front of the cockpit but I could hear the beeps every time we covered another kilometre. As the sun came up I could finally read the time and distance-1:08hr done-just hold on for another 50 minutes at most. I am sure the rest of the group thought I was taking advantage by not taking any leads, but I hadn't the energy too. I was suffering and would have loved to just slow down for a minute. But this wasn't going to happen and I knew I had to stick to the group or be left on the big bad Thames to finish alone. Finally the buildings got bigger and we started to see the London landmarks in the distance. We were nearly there but the DW isn't over until you are under Westminster Bridge. As we turned the final bend and could see the finish line the London Port Authority boat came speeding towards us throwing up a wash about 3 foot high. We all split up and prepared for the impact. My Van Dusen K1 sailed through it. Now I had to start paddling hard back to river right to get inside the line of barges and not get swept under them. With the finish line within 300m I just paddled as hard as I could all the way to the line.
The relief of reaching County Steps is hard to describe. The atmosphere is electric even though its not even 7am. After a quick shower and some food it was time to check the updated results. I honestly had no idea where I was going to place.
To my delight we had completed the tideway in a blistering 1:46:44 and I was in 9th place with a total time of 18:19:55 for the 125 miles.
My goal from the outset was a top 10 finish or a sub 18:30hrs. Goal achieved.
I haven't mentioned my support crew who were fantastic throughout the whole event. My sisters Aileen and Mary Horkan done an amazing job. They were crucial in all aspects of the race bar sitting in the kayak. They met me nearly every hour of the race to give me more fluids and fuel. Its no easy task chasing down the Thames Valley ahead of a posse of support vehicles eager to meet their paddlers. At the end of each day they sorted out my kit and were always ready to go first thing in the morning. Thanks girls.
Base Layers- CRAFT
Kayak- Van Dusen K1
Paddles- Carbonology CS5
Kayak instructor, athlete, business owner and outdoor enthusiast from the west coast of Ireland.
Paddle & Pedal Blog HERE