Over the Easter weekend, our friends Radek Zielski and Alex lane completed the Devizes to Westminster Race in 18 hours, coming in as the 3rd mixed crew. This classic race is a huge test of endurance and determination, and a phenomenal accomplishment for those who manage to complete it. Here's Alex's account of the race:
The week before the race was one of manic preparation: did we have all of our kit, was the boat going well, did we have enough food (it turns out that yes 20 litres of lucozade would be enough) and most importantly were we ready for our challenge of Devizes to Westminster, 125 miles, 77 portages.
We left Devizes at 1315 on Easter Saturday along with another crew so as to pace along the first stretch of water which is known as “The Pound” and does not consist of any portages. After this long stretch of water, there were two key milestones between us and Newbury, the 500m Bruces Tunnel, and the seven consecutive locks known as Crofton flight. The first passed with a little trauma and a near collision with the side of the tunnel due to it being pitch black and also a branch. The second was tackled by running past the seven locks (covering just under 2km) carrying the kayak on our shoulders.
We reached Newbury at 56 km passing through in 5hrs 10, at this point some additional flow, to an otherwise still canal, from the Avon river. Passing through Newbury meant that we were stepping into unknown territory together as we had never paddled further than 56 km in the same boat.
Passing through Aldermaston and on to Reading, 85 kms and 57 locks completed, we were not even half way through! At Reading we joined the River Thames and made what was to be our longest stop at Dreadnaught Reach. This here is a compulsory portage so that crews can be checked they are still fit enough to continue as the race takes a huge toll on the body. We were greeted here by warm food (finally something which didn't contain sugar!), a couple of extra layers ready for the night time (featuring the Palm Tempo jacket in yellow which helped identify us to our support crew during the night) and some members of our very own Reading Canoe Club to cheer us on our way.
The Thames granted us deeper water and some flow to assist us on our way, however this wasn't too much due to the lack of rain over the last month or so. Along the river, portages were less frequent at roughly every 5 km which were good to stretch your legs as you quick stepped your way around them, stopping only for a mouthful of whatever our support crew had ready for us (usually something sweet to keep the immediate energy levels high).
In the late hours of the night we reached Marlow at 120 km. Here it was time to put on more layers including the Palm Energy trousers and also spray decks. It is imperative to stay warm during the race or it saps what energy you have and this can be a game changer for the race.
As we proceeded on from Marlow, we went through the largest drop out zone of crews between there and Old Windsor. Whilst we were paddling in this ‘zone’, it was definitely understandable why it has such a dropout rate … It is the early hours of the morning, all you want is a warm bed, not more sugar and paddle strokes, you just want to get out of the boat as by now the back has gone and you are very lucky if you can still feel your backside. To be honest, the consideration of just giving up kayaking altogether let alone the race flickers across the mind, but eventually we reach Old Windsor and this is a huge psychological boost!
The last portage before Westminster is Teddington lock and we hit it bang on schedule as you have to arrive to go down with the tide, relief washes over you as you feel that you are there now, you are in London, and although this may be the case there are still 30 long kilometres to go. After a big feed of yet more sugar we were on our way down the tideway, pushing hard just so as to get off the water and finally be allowed to rest. Down the tideway you pass Richmond, Hammersmith and Battersea, and finally Radek said 'That’s the Eye’, and we both perked up, just 1 mile left to go …
And its over. WIth a time of 18:00:36 we are the 3rd fastest crew to reach Westminster. Finishing opposite the Houses of Parliament, we are both then escorted up the steps, awarded our medal and taken away to be changed out of our wet kit and to be given breakfast by the kind volunteers. The feeling of achievement overwhelmed both of us (admittedly after some sleep) and all doubts of never kayaking again are gone, in fact we are now keener than ever!
Although we trained a lot, this race and what we achieved could not be done without our support team who fed us, clothed us and encouraged us along the whole course. To see them at each portage was a blessing, and they were always so cheerful (even at 3am!) Thanks must be said also to the volunteers along the way, these people are what make the race happen. Our Palm kit was exceptional and perfect for the race, what with it being light and keeping us warm!
Congratulations to all who completed the race, everyone who completes it is a winner, as this is a challenge not quite like any other.
Huge congatulations to Alex and Radek, on their great achievement! (Ed)