Operating outside my comfort zone — The Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race

For anyone who followed my blogs last year, you’ll know that the first half was spent preparing for the CELTMAN extreme triathlon. To say that the race exceeded all expectations is an understatement but it did leave me somewhat battered and bruised. My long-standing Achilles injury flared up again and left me wondering whether I wanted to commit to another IRONMAN distance event. The only triathlon that I could see myself doing is the NORSEMAN which is part of the same series but this year it’s on the day I’m getting married! Meg is awesome when it comes to supporting me but even she has her limits!

My prized possession — The blue CELTMAN finishers’ T-Shirt

This got me thinking about personal aspirations. There are two races that I want to do in the next couple of years. I have had a burning desire for a long time to do the Marathon des Sables which is recognised as the world’s hardest foot race - a six-day, 251 km ultramarathon, which is approximately the distance of six regular marathons. Getting married this year means that realistically this race is out of my budget and I don’t think I can position this as a honeymoon destination.

Totally unrelated to running but a race that is also ridiculously tough is the Devizes to Westminster (DW) non-stop canoe race. The race is 125 miles long and has 77 portages (taking the boat in and out of the water) and if all goes well, competitors finish outside the Houses of Parliament.

This image perfectly illustrates the challenge that awaits us

The race is a severe test of skill, physical and mental stamina and planning and not only relies on the paddlers but also involves a support crew who are willing to feed, dress and shout words of encouragement for over 24 hours.

Steve Redgrave training for the DW in 2012

To put the race in context, the DW is not for beginner kayakers. In fact, the race is normally the culmination of years of paddling, and just finishing is considered an achievement (every year, roughly a third fail to do so, including Sir Steve Redgrave who didn’t finish in 2012).

So putting aside the fact that I previously had pretty much zero experience in a boat, I decided to get in a boat at my local club, Leamington Spa Canoe Club, for the first time with my great friend Al Broadley, who along with my friend Jamie acted as my vital support crew at the CELTMAN. Al is always up for a challenge and having been good mates for well over 10 years, I knew we’d work well together. At this stage, we agreed with our supportive and friendly club coaches, Attila, Tom and Billy that we wouldn’t commit to doing the DW but instead just see if we enjoyed paddling. Although all the guys have been phenomenally supportive, they knew that Al and I were a bit wet behind the ears when it came to paddling and wanted to ensure we weren’t biting off more than we could chew with the DW.

Like the CELTMAN, it’s impossible to fluke the race, so it requires a total commitment to training. We both noticed early on the benefits of picking up a sport at a young age, particularly when training with the club’s teenagers who have a love for the sport, a relentless work ethic and their eyes on the prize which is to one day compete for Team GB.

The past 6 months have flown by and involved several unplanned swims, going head-to-head with Olympians (more like being left behind) and many hours trying to establish a basic grasp of the technique required to paddle 125 miles without our shoulders or arms blowing up well before the end.

Me and Al with Olympians Jon Schofield and Liam Heath after being “narrowly” beaten by them

Up until Christmas, I still wasn’t entirely sure we were going to enter the DW. We had done a couple of 20 mile paddles together and the first time we did it, I was basically wiped out for the rest of the day. Not only was I experiencing extreme discomfort from sitting in the boat but I was also suffering from working different muscle groups harder than they’re used to.

The Christmas break came and went and we had a 4 week hiatus where Al and I didn’t sit in a boat together. The turning point came in mid-January when we knew we’d need to buy a boat for the DW. The boat we had been training in (The Beast) was perfect for us when we started out because it’s so stable but it was incredibly heavy and we knew that when it came to lifting it in and out of the water, we’d be exhausted.

Our first boat demo involved a South African boat called The Big Rush which we were told could stand a lot of abuse but it was pretty evident from a short paddle that neither of us were totally comfortable with the boat. We agreed that I’d put a feeler out on the DW Facebook group to see if anyone was selling a boat and what happened next amazed me…..

A chap by the name of Bob Mccall who is a veteran DW paddler got in touch to say that he potentially had the perfect boat but he was loathed to sell it. Here we go I thought, he’s going to try and charge me an arm and a leg. Bob then went on to explain that he’d be happy for us to borrow his Elio Cobra K2 for our training and race and that the only condition was that we complete the DW (no pressure there then).

A few days later Bob arrived at the Boat Club with his boat strapped to his car. When he unloaded the boat, I have to admit my initial thought was, ‘wow this boat looks fast but boy does it looks tippy!’ A few words of encouragement from our coach Tom and before I knew it we were sat in the boat. I literally thought we’d make it 5 metres before falling in. A boat is a bit like a shoe and within a few strokes we both knew it was the ideal boat for us. The perfect balance between stability, speed and comfort. Bob’s generosity has left me and Al totally speechless and it’s a reminder of how kind other human beings can be. A massive thank you Bob! He’s a genuinely great guy who has not only lent us his pride and joy but has also taken the time to share many years of experience competing in the DW.

Al has volunteered for the Chief Engineer role on our boat

Al and I are now at the stage where we’re on average doing 3-4 sessions on the water a week, which now includes a long paddle at the weekend. We’re also doing one gym session together a week. In addition, we’re both running and if time allows, doing more gym work. The other area we both try to focus on is stretching. I’ve been amazed how tight my hamstrings are and the impact it has on my posture.

Here’s a short taster of some of the exercises we’re doing: https://youtu.be/o0B5RIGbczA

The DW race is in mid-April and over the course of the next few months, we will be competing in the Watersides and Thamesides which are seen as the build up races for the DW. All races encompass a proportion of the DW route. On Sunday (19th Feb) we will be doing our first race, Waterside A which is Great Bedwyn to Newbury — 13.5 miles and 21 portages.

Another long paddle with Al in our DW boat

Now that I’m totally committed to completing the DW or as Al recently said, now that we’re balls deep, my plan is to blog regularly up to the race and share the trials and tribulations that will no doubt be in store for us. For any of you who use Strava, I’m recording most of my paddles here:
https://www.strava.com/athletes/james7782