Marathon canoe race epic

Canoeing 125 miles (200 km) through the countryside, running 76 locks and weirs plus coping with blisters, heatstroke, psychotic swans and drunken pleasure boat owners may not be everyone’s idea of fun. But for around 600 committed “paddlers”, such is the unique appeal of the Devizes to Westminster international canoe race, held every Easter holiday weekend.

Billed as the world’s toughest canoe race, it was conceived some 60 years ago as a bet in a pub near Devizes, Wiltshire.

Two scouts doubted whether it would be possible to navigate the then derelict Kennet and Avon canal and the Thames all the way to London and thus another seemingly foolhardy venture was born.

The first two crews to try took 77 hours to reach London, according to the race Web site

Extensive dredging, lock repairs and improved boat technology mean top kayak pairs and singles can complete the course in as little as 15 hours if they opt for the non-stop contest.

Others do the same run spread out in stages over four days.

I paddled my first junior stage race at the age of 16. I eventually won the senior, non-stop race in just over 16 hours and went on to race for the British team for almost a decade before journalism, marriage and children took me away from the river.

Such is the allure of D-W, as it is known in the canoeing community, however, that the thought of one day doing it again never quite goes away.

And so it was that at the age of 40, some 20 years after my first win at the event, I found myself lining up once again for the start.

The omens were not good.

I only started training six months ago but my rivals in the singles class included a youthful international canoeist with impressively long, dyed blond hair and a collection of tattoos, a wiry looking fellow from Hereford, home of the Special Air Service regiment, and competitors from Germany, South Africa and Ireland.

Maybe I would, after all, be “happy just to finish”.

Day One proved a mixed experience. Taking in the 34 miles (54.4 km) from Devizes to Newbury, I struggled in the heat and suffered numerous blisters.

A 24-year-old, Simon Fennemore, set a course record and another Briton, Richard Golder, shook me off easily as he powered past at half way. I soldiered on to a not-too-disgraceful third place.

My support crew, who provide the essential food and drink along the course, reminded me there was still a long way to go. So it proved as ‘Percy’, the man of military bearing from Hereford, came powering through to take second place on Day Two.

Fennemore, meanwhile, set another course record for the 36-mile (57.6 km) second stage to Marlow and looked unbeatable.

The next day’s 38-mile (60.8 km) marathon stretch, along the Thames from Marlow to Richmond on the edge of London, proved decisive.

Despite swampings by pleasure craft, attacks by swans and yet more blisters, I managed to pull away from two of my rivals to finish second behind Fennemore.

Easter Monday saw all 200 competitors in the singles and junior pairs’ stage race rising for the 7 a.m. tide at Richmond and a relatively short, 17-mile (27.2 km) blast to Westminster Bridge.

Over the four days, Fennemore outpaddled me by more than an hour, but my combined time of 16 hours 14 minutes and 48 seconds was enough to secure me second place overall.

But more boat washes, swirls under the bridges and the compound effect of more than 100 miles (160 km) of canoeing had taken their toll.

As I watched Fennemore’s blonde mane recede into the distance ahead of me, I reflected that his 16-year age advantage had at least given me the benefit of just a bit more common sense.

So as we sat together a little later in the shadow of the London Eye at Westminster, sharing experiences over a hot bacon roll, I was able to chuckle at suggestions that Fennemore might do it again soon.

I, at least, now know better.

This article was first published by Reuters