3rd – 4th April 2010
We [David Woodcock and Edward Higgins] started training for the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race in December 2009, having heard about the obscure race from a couple of friends over a couple of beers. Neither of us had much experience of canoeing and in fact Ed had never even sat in a canoe!
But both of us were looking for a new challenge and didn’t fancy running a marathon so this race seemed like the ideal opportunity. We did a lot of research and through a friend we joined nearby Richmond Canoe Club. There we were taken under the wing of a former Olympic canoeing coach, Trevor Weatherall.
We met with Trevor one night in Richmond and he gave us the full lowdown on the race. It is known as the “Canoers Everest” and the majority of people who compete in the race are hardened canoeists, so for a couple of complete novices this was going to require a lot of hours in the boat. To say we landed on our feet would be a massive under statement and Trevor played an integral part in teaching us how to canoe and getting us in to shape.
We trained religiously from December up until the race and by the final week we were paddling some 80 miles each week. There were a few times we questioned what we had signed up to, particularly the night time paddling sessions when the temperatures in January hovered around freezing!
We only managed to capsize once in training in early January, this harsh experience focused the mind and from then on we managed to avoid a further dunking.
I think one of the main reasons we were able to stay motivated was the fact that we were raising money for such a great cause and our friends were so supportive and generous. The main difficulty we had during training is that 2 weeks before the race Ed was very ill with a stomach infection, which resulted in him loosing over a stone in weight in 1 week.
We ended up missing a vital build up race and at one point we were worried about whether Ed would be in good enough shape to compete in the race itself. But the weekend before the race we went out and paddled 50 miles in a weekend and Ed came through it fairly well. At this point, having dedicated 4 months of our lives preparing for the race, I don’t think anything was going to stop us.
The race itself took place on Easter weekend and we were aiming to complete the 125 miles in 24 hours. The Easter conditions were very challenging with high winds and rain, which at one point meant the race was going to be delayed by 12 hours. We arrived at Devizes two hours ahead of our planned leave time at 11am. The first two hours were spent registering and getting the boat ready along with some last minute team talks! Also listening to a worrying safety briefing which mentioned a standing wave at one of the bridges in Marlow!
We had mentally broken the race down in to four parts, but the furthest we had ever been in training was only 40 miles. This fact I think weighed heavily on our minds, the fear of when we would hit the “wall” and how we would be able to get through this.
The first 30 miles of the race saw us go from Devizes to Newbury, this section is all on the canal, which means no river flow and a lot of portages (where you have to get out of the boat and carry it round locks). This section was relatively straightforward, although due to the heavy rain the portages were very muddy which resulted in both of us falling over at several points!
The next slog was from Newbury to Reading, the motivating factor here was that when we got to Reading we would be able to stop for 2 minutes and get some hot food on board and a change of clothes.
I say a change of clothes but the reality was adding a pair of waterproof trousers and a change of waterproof. Having fallen a few times on the muddy toe paths, I think we looked in a bit of a state when we arrived at Reading.
At this point it was dark and our support crew were keen to get us moving so after half a pot noodle (one of the best things I have ever eaten!) we were on our way.
The next section from Reading to Teddington lock is where the majority of crews drop out. This is around 40 miles and is paddled at night, with a heavy cloud cover navigating our way around the windy river was very difficult. Other crews were also struggling and a crew in front of us narrowly avoided going over a weir, which would have been a fatal mistake. This helped to focus the mind as we quickly realised that one wrong mistake and there was more than not finishing at stake.
We battled through the night to Teddington with our support crew constantly pushing us on and ensuring we were taking on lots of fluids and fuel. There were some low points, Ed lost the feeling in his right leg during the night which never came back (until a week after the race) and I was really struggling with my wrists. The 90,000 paddle strokes that we would make during the race were beginning to take effect as was the sleep deprivation. Our minds were playing tricks on us and at one point I thought I saw a waterfall, which on the Thames would have been amazing!
As dawn started to break our spirits were lifted and we knew we just had to dig in and we would be at Westminster before we knew it. We pulled in to Teddington right on schedule and were greeted by our support crew and a few brave friends who had dragged themselves out of bed at 6am on a Sunday morning. We took on some fresh supplies, lots of energy gels and pushed on to Westminster.
We arrived at Westminster as Big Ben chimed 11am. This is no London marathon and a crowd of maybe 100 cheered us over the line. We were helped from our boat by the marshals and walked arm in arm up the stairs of County Hall.
All those months of training had paid off and we had made it in 22 hours and 58 minutes, 1 hour ahead of our planned schedule. We were both too tired and drained for any celebrations, but with our medals around our necks we limped back to our cars and headed home for a much needed shower. Our achievement really came home when we were told that out of the 160 boats that started the race 60 retired.
In the end we will raise around £9,000 for CRY and Help for Heroes. We just need to find our next challenge, maybe the Atlantic…..