Our Story

Our Story – Part I

Team Turquoise Tornado was born in the early months of 2018 after breaking through ice somewhere along the River Kennet. As much as it felt like a completely ridiculous way to spend a Saturday morning, we were in high spirits and thought the name would bode well for our impending marathon kayaking career.

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In real life, I am Steph and my husband is Al. We tend to approach life in a blissfully optimistic way. It’s this approach to life that I blame for us taking on the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race with an “it’ll be fine!” and “bring it on!” attitude.

Al first learnt about the race when he supported his brother doing it several years back. He described it as “one of the few things my brother has done that I’m remotely interested in” and hence the idea had been sneakily bubbling away in his mind for about ten years. A few false starts later, Al discovered that casually mentioning it to friends and getting in a kayak once a year wasn’t really the way to make his plan happen. Plan B was to persuade ‘The Wife’ to get involved as apparently “she makes stuff happen”. Knowing that I generally don’t change my mind once I’ve said I’ll do something, Al charmingly asked for me to keep him company in a kayak. So in June 2017 that’s where it all started – it’s just a one-off, what’s the worst that can happen?!

By August I started thinking we should work out where we might get a boat from. Primarily I realised that we had no idea what type of boat we actually needed. Helpfully Al’s brother was also able to point us in the right direction with “you should get a K2”. Lots of research later, we established that the cheapest way to do the race was to join a club and thankfully we found one near home who welcomed us with open arms. This was despite their obvious scepticism about our plan to do DW at Easter having never been in a racing kayak before. Looking back, I am amazed they took us seriously. In fact, I think they were probably just humouring us if I’m honest!

Our first trip out in a K2 was interesting to say the least. We got in the boat with unfounded confidence as we are a watersports-loving couple. To our surprise it turned out that racing kayaks are a whole different ball game. Even in the most stable boat, they wobble. A lot.

So we capsized. And capsized again. And capsized again…

By October I was starting to wonder if I could really go through with our grand master plan. I was happily signed up to the misery of paddling for hours, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the constant concentration required to simply stay upright. I wasn’t convinced I could sustain it for 24 hours solid. Thankfully we persisted with the coach’s advice and by November we were feeling confident, stable and starting to think about the finer details of paddling technique. Most pleasingly, we hadn’t capsized for at least a month!

At Christmas we sat down and made the decision to take ourselves seriously with a training plan. We booked out all our free weekends from the New Year until Race Day and started thinking what we needed to cover in training. There was hardly any advice online, but thankfully the club gave us some tips which got us started. It now felt very real. We were putting on hold other hobbies, a social life and lie-ins. Our life was now kayaking.

Training had its ups, downs, rain, mud, ice and rudder breaking. I was so glad for having the plan in place or we would have too easily said “let’s just go next week instead”. We gradually covered the course, worked out what would make us miserable and what would keep our spirits up. Making up fake Archers episodes and The Animal Game became key features of our lives, as did the 2kg of flapjack that was gradually demolished from the freezer. We were also thankful for the friends who were willing to give up their weekends to drive our car from A to B so we could do one-way trips.

I will admit that when we started kayaking, neither of us had a realistic idea of the commitment we’d need to make to train properly for the race. Having never trained for anything like this before, it felt like a real achievement when we completed our final long paddle and Easter was just a few weeks away.

As race day loomed there seemed to be a) endless rain and b) endless questions that we didn’t know the answer to. What time should we start? How will our support team find us in the dark? How can the support team make hot food on the move? Should we have one car or two for the night shift? Which clothes should we have with us in the boat? What would our average speed be after all this rain? Many hours of conversations at the club and additional Googling gave us a few answers, but it still felt a bit like we were driving to Devizes on Easter Friday with our fingers crossed.

We had planned to register on the Friday night as we wanted to leave first thing on Saturday morning. I couldn’t quite believe it was actually happening when we arrived at the wharf with our boot full of food and a boat on the roof ready to register. Needless to say, it was still raining. There was a great atmosphere but I couldn’t help but feel like a complete novice looking at all the super skinny lightweight K2s accompanied by their calm and collected owners.

We were bustled into a pre-race briefing and then came the bombshell. It had been raining solidly for about a week before the race and the river flow rate had gone from ‘exciting’ to ‘completely unsafe’. The race officials had made the difficult decision to ban everyone from paddling on the Thames in the dark. Of all the things we predicted could possibly go wrong, this was not on our list.

We had two options. Option one was to split our race, starting at 7am on Saturday, stopping at Reading, then paddling on to Westminster on Sunday morning after some sleep. Option two was to start Saturday evening, doing the canal section in the dark and paddling the Thames section on Sunday daytime. The caveat to this was that if conditions got worse they may have to stop the race at Reading completely.

With two supporters en-route and a boot full of food, we decided to take the first option. With six months preparation and a group of family and friends ready to support us, we couldn’t face sacking the whole thing off and equally couldn’t face re-organising all our support to start on Saturday evening.

And so it was that we arrived back in Devizes on Saturday morning and set off to Reading. We were both had churning stomachs from the nerves and I was shattered after having very little sleep the night before. It was strangely blissful to finally paddle off into the peace and quiet of the canal and we relaxed into silence for a surprising amount of the first leg to Pewsey.

It was great chatting to other paddlers as they passed by, hearing about where they were from and if they were a DW veteran or newbie. It was even more pleasing over-taking a few people, feeling like Team Turquoise Tornado’s training was finally paying off! Despite the last minute changes, it felt like there was still a great sense of camaraderie amongst all the competitors which was amazing to be part of.

As the hours passed we began to think forward to each supported lock, suddenly understanding how key the support team are for our morale. We were feeling pretty miserable between Hungerford and Newbury and to top it off the heavens had opened. Our thoughts started to turn to “what is the point in doing just half?”, “we’ll only feel like we need to do it again next year”, “I’m so tired, I can’t do this” and “we could just stop”. Along with pessimism came rubbish technique, with our paddles pointlessly slapping the water as we lost focus and enthusiasm. Thankfully our amazing support team clocked us looking like death and were ready with tea, bacon sandwiches, haribo and Ibuprofen. The effect was instantaneous!

The section from Hungerford to Newbury was definitely our lowest point. Once we’d clocked on to the need for caffeine and morale food we chugged along pretty well. The physical aches and pains got gradually worse (as you’d expect) and our mood went up and down but thankfully not back to the point we were at before.

Finding out just after Newbury that the race had been cancelled completely from Reading onwards was irritating but helpful news. My thoughts had been focused on whether I would want to give the race another go next year, knowing full well that I wouldn’t be able to leave it unfinished. Accepting that this year would just be a long and expensive training run to Reading helped my mind grudgingly settle on spending Easter 2019 in a kayak. Planning that evening’s trip to the pub probably also gave us a boost.

As we got closer to Reading the river became exciting to say the least. The effort we had to put in to fight the flow made us suddenly understand why we weren’t being allowed on the Thames. Struggling to paddle against tiny weir streams on the Kennet did not bode well for surviving weirs ten times the size further down the course. Having to wade halfway out into the river for portages and feeling like we were on white water rapid through Reading town centre were some memorable experiences!

As the sun set we made it to Dreadnought Reach. We were aching, shivering and 100% ready to stop paddling. We still find it impossible to know whether we would have been able to finish the race as you pace yourself according to what you have to complete. I would like to think that we’d have been able to do another 60 miles, but it’s so hard to predict your mental resilience. We finished the 53 miles (and 60 portages) in 11 hours and 21 minutes. It’s not a medal-winning time by any stretch of the imagination and we only did half the race, but we are still very proud of that achievement.

It was after our first DW (Devizes to Wokingham Canoe Club) that the Zero to DW Hero website was born. It was probably my way of justifying the six months we spent training and preparing to only do half the race. Even doing half the distance was still a massive challenge, and we had learnt a huge amount. I wanted to put what we have learnt to good use and share it with anyone who wanted to give DW a go.

So having done the short version of DW (Devizes to Wokingham Canoe Club), I suppose our story was to be continued…

Our Story – Part II

And so it was that we found ourselves back at Devizes wharf on Easter Friday with a strong sense of déjà vu.

Training for the race a second time round was easier in many ways – we already had reasonable technique, we had a better idea of what we needed to achieve and we already knew the course so didn’t feel so obliged to paddle down every section. The difficulty seemed to be a sense of cockiness about having another whole year of training under our belt which resulted in us sacking off quite a few of our week-night training sessions and going out for a pizza instead. Clearly the whole process being dragged out for another year put a dent in our motivation!

Despite a few missed training sessions, we were feeling optimistic about the race and the weather was a blessing. We arrived at Devizes with the sun shining in the midst of an Easter weekend heat wave, amused by the beaming smiles on the faces of the umpires as they knew there was no chance of them having to cancel the race again.

We set off bright and early on Saturday morning, chuffed with the enthusiasm of our support team, that we’d remembered to put some Vaseline in key places to avoid chafing and hoping that we’d got our hydration levels right to avoid needing the loo every 5 minutes!

The few hours of paddling up to the first lock were fairly peaceful other than being dive-bombed by Sid the Swan and the sole of Al’s shoe falling off. Having a giant white bird fly directly at you with evil in its eyes is not an experience I’d like to repeat, and thankfully our swift diversion into a nearby shrub saved us from an early capsize. I’m also pretty sure our support team enjoyed their shopping trip to the local Sport Direct for a new pair of shoes for Al. We enjoyed passing some familiar faces from the previous year, sharing good wishes and amusement at the Caribbean temperatures.

As we left Devizes at a spritely 7.05am, we knew there could only be five minutes worth of boats in front of us and spent much of the morning convinced we’d got to the front only to come across another set of paddles in the distance. And then came “you’re in third place!” from spectators who were blissfully ignorant to DW’s staggered starting times: “You’re gaining on them!”, “you’re only a mile behind the first boat”, and finally at Newbury “you’re in the lead!” Despite knowing that there was no hope what-so-ever of us winning, it was hugely motivating being the first to each portage and our support team were lapping up the glory of feeding the infamous leading boat 317!

The paddle up to Dreadnought Reach still had its ups and downs like last year, but was definitely easier overall. We were far better at anticipating when we needed some caffeine, we had the entertainment of being the leading boat, and thanks to Mr Sunshine we weren’t soaking wet and freezing cold. But mainly, we knew we could do it. Our mentality was that we just needed to get the paddle to Reading ‘out the way’ and then the real challenge would begin.

We eventually lost our lead after about eight hours as our energy levels took a dip, but I’ll admit being quite pleased to finally have a bit of company on the river and the distraction of chatting to the faster boats as they began to overtake us. After losing my energy gel virginity at Marsh Lock (whilst saying hello to a very cute puppy) I had been battling tiredness quite well, but by this point I was putting a lot of effort into convincing my eyes that it wasn’t bed time yet.

I empathise with Cinderella as things certainly got a lot more difficult after midnight. The aches and pains of paddling for so long hadn’t necessarily got any worse, but as the tiredness sets in it seems harder to ignore them. Alongside that, paddling in the dark is initially something new to think about but as the hours draw on the novelty was wearing off. We were relying heavily on regular doses of tea and/or Red Bull and the morale boost of seeing our support team every hour.

A real low point for us was at Penton Hook where, after planning out our extensive list of motivational snacks, we arrived to find no evidence our support team anywhere. It had been a long break since we’d had any support and we were feeling cold, miserable and in need of edible morale. We shouted names into the dark but after no answer had to head on with our fingers crossed for the next portage, hoping desperately that something had happened rather than our support team just enjoying a nap in the car.

Unbeknownst to us, our tracker had stopped working so we looked as though we had been stationary in the middle of no-where for 40 minutes. To add even more confusion to the situation, we were also listed on the tracker website as ‘retired’. After becoming more and more alarmed, our support team had driven to find us. Thankfully we had an amazing support team spread over two cars and so whilst one car drove to the mysterious tracker location, the other drove to the next lock in the hope that we might turn up. As we arrived and celebrated seeing a familiar face we were presented with the rather surprising question “this may sound like a silly thing to ask, but have you retired from the race?” I think they correctly interpreted our rather strong response as a more polite “no”.

After that it’s all a bit of a blur: we were shattered; we were aching; we felt sick; we knew we needed to eat and drink but couldn’t face it; Al took about three years to get out of the boat at each portage; I cried with relief when the sun rose; by Teddington Lock Al was shaking from the cold and I could hardly bear being in the boat anymore as my bum was in so much pain…

…but…

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We finally made it to Westminster Bridge.

In one piece (just).

In 25 hours and 43 minutes.

There’s so much I could say about the whole experience of DW, but something I saw someone post on Facebook just sums it up so well: it was the best and worst experience of my whole life. It was the hardest thing I have ever done and certainly the most difficult thing I’ve ever trained for. It’s the most pain I can remember being in and the most tired I’ve ever felt. Yet somehow all that is over-ridden by the pride of having made it to the end and the whirlwind of memories I’ll have of the journey. It really is an amazing thing to be part of.

I’m not planning to turn into one of those mad people that do DW every year as for me it was about the challenge of completing it for the first time. I do however want to keep this site up and running as I’ve had some great feedback. I’ll apologise now as the blogs might be far and fewer in between, but I’ll do my best to keep it up to date so that the advice can help anyone else wanting to be part of DW.

If you’d like to read about more of our DW training and other kayaking adventures then have a look at our blog.

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© S Hicks 2019

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