The Devizes to Westminster completely shattered my youthful ideas of invincibility. It was by a long shot the most difficult challenge I have ever undertaken and even a week on I was still reeling from the swing between emotional highs and lows. The stress of last minute organisation to the excitement of finally starting off and everything working well, then the low of overestimating how far we had come, the joy of hot food and a gear change in Reading, the misery of exhaustion and navigation through the night and finally making it under that bridge we had been dreaming about for the past 12 months.
A plan emerges
As with many of the crazier things people do in life the first plans for our attempt at this marathon began over drinks on St. Patrick’s Day 2013. We were inspired to attempt the race by two of our scout leaders Andy O’Connell and Paul Tyrell who ten years previously planned and finished the 125 mile epic. The scouts were fundraising at the time to invest in new equipment so as well as 9 months intensive training the two lads aimed to raise €20,000. Along with a driven support crew and the scouts themselves they managed this amazing feat and firmly inscribed their names into the history of Malahide sea scouts.
We too decided to enter the race to help out the scouts funding a new development. The current Scout den was completed in 1984 and is now suffering from age, among other things the leaking roof and the lack of special needs facilities has provoked the group into a den development to deal with these issues. In the economic times we live in it is no longer possible for the group to get a loan and so to get the development up and running we decided to do our bit and replicate what Andy and Paul did a decade ago.
The fund raising was one of the most difficult parts of the lead up to the race, we knew that it was out of our reach to raise €20,000 in this economic climate along with the current scepticism over where charity money is going so we lowered our aim to €5,000. We came fairly close with huge support from the kayaking community and friends and family we got a final tally of €4,200. I feel it was worth the effort.
Running the DW as a diabetic
The Malahide scouts were not the only beneficiaries of our charity work, as a type 1 diabetic I was interested from the beginning in sharing any funds 50:50 between the scouts and Diabetes Ireland to give a little back to these organisations have done so much for me. In 2002 I spent a week in Temple Street children’s hospital after getting a diabetes diagnosis and had my first experience with Diabetes Ireland, they provided me with a load of information and help on how to get my life back to normal. One thing that has stuck with me till this day is a small quote one of the nursing staff said to me which was ‘all you have to do is to learn how to fit your diabetes around your life and not the other way around’.
6 months after the diagnosis the Scouts gave me my first challenge to fit my diabetes around my life and I spent 10 days paddling and rowing down the River Barrow, camping on the bank each night. It was a great way of getting me to manage my blood sugar and those ten days still stick out as a high point of my childhood. Since then I have had so many mad experiences with no major issues thanks to these two amazing organisations, I can’t see my life being half as fulfilling as it is if they hadn’t helped me along the way.
All the hiking, camping, water-sports and trips abroad I had growing up meant I had a good starting point to figure out how to look after myself on this epic race. I have met a lot of people who think of diabetes as an intolerance where I have to cut all sugar out of my diet or that I have to take on more sugar than normal but in reality it is a complicated balancing act between the two. As a type 1 diabetic my body cannot produce insulin so I must inject it, this is what causes the balancing act because I must match the insulin I take to the food I eat. To complicate matters the body’s sensitivity to insulin i.e. the amount of sugar let into cells per volume of insulin injected is increased by exercise, exercise therefore leads to low blood sugar.
It was no small matter ensuring blood sugars didn’t rise or fall too much, letting the sugars slip a little would slow us down a huge amount and letting them go a lot could be very dangerous. If I let my blood sugar levels rise too high then the lack of insulin in my system would mean my muscles would lose power and cramp up. Let it go the other way and things get much worse and the lack of glucose in my system would not only mean my muscles wouldn’t have fuel to power them but my brain would begin to starve and a potential hypoglycaemia could result in a trip in an ambulance or worse.
As a way of figuring out how to control my sugar levels I treated every training session since we started in September as an experiment, checking my blood sugar levels before getting in the boat, adjusting the rate of insulin I was receiving or changing the food I was taking on board and after the session seeing the affect it had had on the levels. It worked in the end as I checked my blood every 5 of the 125 mile race and I only had 2 measurements that were slightly too high, the rest were perfect. The addition of my diabetes to the challenge just adds to this amazing feeling of accomplishment. In fact I believe my attention to sugar levels was what kept me going strong right to the end.
Training plan / Rocky Montage
Anyway that’s enough about diabetes, we had plenty of time to experiment with everything in training. Our fitness training began 8 months before the race in September but really we started preparing for the race after Easter 2013 so it was a full year to get us where we needed to be. This time last year neither of us had been near the true marathon racing boat whose narrow shape designed for speed make them notoriously difficult to keep upright. We spent the summer before working on our balance in two single K1 racing kayaks that were kindly lent to us by Canoeing Ireland’s marathon committee.
When September finally came around we were comfortable enough in the K1s to decided it was time to get in the tandem K2 kayak. A friend and fellow scout Brian Nolan was kind enough to lend us his K2 and we started heading out in the dark after work for an 8 mile stretch on the Malahide estuary Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings. We kept this up till December when exams took precedence and we took a month off for Christmas.
After New Year’s we started back up, the race seemed so much closer, so with that bit of pressure we really started ramping up the distances. We went from 10 to 16 mile sessions, then up to 20 milers and at this point we had our first experience of hitting the wall. 18 miles in with no food and reduced insulin we both ran out of energy and those last two miles were brutal.
This session prompted us to sort out a drinking system so we could take on high carb drinks while paddling and we also started training with our support crew who followed us down the canals to feed us at locks as they would be in the race. On the 16th of February we finished our first 32 mile stretch between the little town of Rhode back up the Grand Canal into Celbridge, with a cruising speed of about 6 miles an hour it took us 5 hours and 20 minutes to get under the bridge outside Celbridge paddlers club we had nicknamed mini Westminster. We came to know that route very well over the next few months!
After that session we set out a new schedule for the lead up to the race, Tuesday evenings we would bring the boat down to the broadmedows estuary in Malahide and paddle a four mile course as fast as we could, we came close to emptying our stomachs on a few of these. Thursday evenings we got the boat up to the Grand Canal out in Celbridge and spent a few hours paddling between 16 and 20 miles and the weeks training was finally finished off on Sunday with the Rhode to Celbridge paddle.
We had our last training session 9 days before the race and with that we felt ready for the start line. The DW is a funny race because you are trying to finish faster than the other boats in your class but everybody has to figure out their finishing time before they start. The final 18 miles of the race is tidal and at high tide the sea flows back up the river till it reaches the Teddington lock. After 107 miles you would be in no state to paddle against the tide so to complete the race you must make it to Teddington sometime between half an hour before and three and a half hours after high tide. In order to catch the fastest flow after the tide we worked out that we needed to leave Devizes at 11:00 aiming to be under Westminster bridge at half 9 the next day.
Starting the race
After all the stress making sure we were ready for everything we were more than happy when we finally got to jump in the boat and get going. It was a lovely sunny day and even with a headwind we decided on starting off wearing just our base layer thermals and caps and leave the kags and hats for later. This worked very well for the first few miles but as Tiarnán was taking the wind on his chest and the drips that flicked off my paddles started to cool him down fairly quick so the support crew got his kag on fairly early on.
We were paddling a fair rate faster than the crews around us and even though we were pulling in more often than most for food we were still flying past everyone around us. This was great for the moral as we saw crews off in the distance and watched them getting closer till we overtook them and spotted the next crew to catch.
To balance the calories being burned we had our high carb supplement drink that was 4 parts simple carbohydrate to 1 part protein with the idea that the carbohydrate would fuel the bodies and the protein would be sacrificial to prevent the body breaking itself down when things got tough. To add to the drink and keep our stomachs in reasonable shape we took on solid food and carbohydrate gels every 5 miles along the course with three larger meals to give us something to look forward to.
In the weeks coming up to the race we had been suffering from lots of little injuries like tight hamstrings, sore shoulders and lower back pain which were all repetitive strain injuries. I had been really worried about the first 15 miles of the race known as ‘the plod’ because there are no locks to get out and portage (run) around and in training I hadn’t managed to stay in the boat that long without a lot of pain and numbness in my legs. Luckily we had put aside a week off training before the race to carb load, eating as much as we could, and this seemed to do did the trick, at the start line we were in great shape without any niggling pains and got through the plod without a problem.
Tactics: planning and running around locks
We had done a lot of training getting in and out of the boat at locks, there are 77 portages along the course so we knew this was an area that could save or lose us a lot of time, if you can get your portaging a minute faster you can knock an hour and 17 minutes of the race. We worked out that we could save more time on some of the locks that were closer together by putting the boat up on the shoulders and running along the tow path instead of stopping to get back on and off the canal. The longest stretch we had planned on running was a one mile section that had 7 locks but on the day one of our support crew was running ahead of us and managed to get us to run an extra half mile. He reckoned the sections first few sections after we planned to get back on were just as short as the one we had skipped. That run nearly killed me but we were 8 minutes ahead of schedule, the sun was still shining and the energy drink soon got me back on form so we paddled on.
The only hitch for the rest of the day was an overestimation by me on how far we had paddled, that meant we were about 15 miles further back along the course, this was a big psychological blow but we were still ahead of schedule so we kept going with the promise of a battered sausage and chip and dry thermals in Reading. About an hour after the sun went down we finally made it. The run in was a bit surreal as we moved from the canal onto the river Kennet which passed through the middle of a shopping district. Some drunk Englishmen came out to cheer us on before we moved back into the darkness as the Kennet joins the Thames, we pulled in at the mandatory checkpoint to get our chipper and dry thermals which was heaven.
Paddling through the dark
We were in great spirits leaving Reading but we knew the night time would be the most difficult period and we weren’t wrong. The first issue that night-time on the Thames brought was navigation, you would think it would be hard to get lost in a river but the Thames is full of Islands and you can take major long cuts going the wrong way round. Then you had to find the portage points at locks for the mega weirs that roared off in the darkness. We managed keep on the right route by following the boats ahead of us, each paddler had to have a glow stick attached to their buoyancy aid and a lot of boats had red lights on the back. When looking off into the darkness to choose a direction we could usually see a single red or blue pixel on this black screen in front of us that kept getting bigger until we caught it and moved onto the next pixel.
Tiarnán had put a huge amount of effort into predicting our progress along the route, factoring in everything from flow rates and the effects of fatigue, to the time taken for toliet breaks. He created a spread sheet that had a prediction of when we would reach each point. We were within a few minutes of this for most of the race until we reached the portages around the monster locks of the Thames. There was only small specific areas you could get out and back in again and as we were getting closer to Teddington the number of racers around us increased. All this lead to big queues at each exit point and get on, each time we got back on we were told how far behind schedule we had fallen. The queues at least gave a bit of a break but the worst thing about those locks was that we couldn’t jump straight back in the boat and get fed on the water as there wasn’t enough bank space for people to get around us, this meant we had to eat and drink standing on the bank in the cold wind.
Struggling with the cold (and The Pot Noodle Incident)
Dealing with the cold was the toughest night time experience with temperature drop and slow portaging, Tiarnán took the brunt of this as he was paddling in the front and had the wind on his chest, by 3 in the morning he was fairly hypothermic. I could feel it in his paddle stroke and it was a struggle to keep him talking. We told the support crew we needed hot chocolate or soup at the next lock but the car at that lock didn’t have any and so had bought pot noodles in a petrol station, instead of the delicious chocolate drink we were handed a pot noodle. For me this was a bit of a let-down, my stomach was already a little queasy and forcing down a pot of processed chemicals wasn’t something to enjoy but for Tiarnán this was a complete disaster. They make him sick and can’t eat them in normal circumstances so in the state he was in forcing it into him was out of the question, he left it I told the lads he needed a fleece and hot chocolate ready for him at the next lock.
This was the lowest point of the night, I couldn’t get Tiarnán talking at all and the pace had dropped dramatically. We struggled to the next point but we did make it, finally getting Tiarnán the clothing and hot drink he needed and when we got back on it was like he was starting off at the beginning again, with warmth back in his body he tore off and after a while I had to tell him to relax the pace as I couldn’t keep up.
We had always known that if we could make it to sunrise on time we would be through the worst of it and our chances of dropping out on the rest would be slim to none, when we saw the black sky getting brighter our spirits rose with it, the cloud covering that morning meant we never saw an exact sunrise but I have never been so happy to look up and be able to make out clouds in daylight.
When we got to Teddington it felt like a finish line in itself, despite the queues at the locks we had made it only half an hour behind our predicted time. Even with a terribly upset stomach I was feeling great. I was warm, the body was a lot better than I thought it would be at that point and we were about to get onto the tidal section and looking forward to letting the water do the rest of the work. Unfortunately 18 miles is still a very long way to paddle and the flow wasn’t the waterslide we were hoping it would be so the emotional roller-coaster went for one last plunge before the finish.
The river at that point is about 200 meters wide and with the strongest flow in the centre getting to the bank took ages and getting out of the flow slowed us down a lot. To make the most of the moving water we only pulled in once on the final stretch. At this stop 12 miles from the finish line I filled myself with unwanted food eating as much as I could and filled my bottle with the carb drink, with that we pulled back out into the flow and put the head down to get ourselves over the line.
Crisis on the home stretch
We had read a number of blogs about the race over the past year and the majority of them described the paddle into London as almost enjoyable, you are in a terrible state but the excitement of reaching the finish line would give you the energy you needed. Unfortunately 3 miles from Westminster I was not enjoying things at all; the weather reflected my feelings, a miserable grey sky lighting up the muddy banks and cold glass buildings. My feelings were a result of exhaustion, our paddling style which had been so good up to this point was going to the dogs and most importantly myself and Tiarnán had gone quiet. The lack of talking meant all I had left to think about was how far we had to go and what hurt.
When we were exactly a mile from the bridge the style got steadily worse and I was feeling less stable in the boat when suddenly Tiarnán started talking about having to pull in, he wasn’t making too much sense but he managed to tell me that he needed the emergency rations in the back of the boat. He was suffering from low blood sugar. His body wasn’t producing that much insulin but he had been burning so much glucose over the race that skipping the food breaks on the last 10 miles had caused him to burn through the last of the glucose in his system and his brain was beginning to starve.
We pulled in to the bank and I jumped out into the mud. I grabbed the bottle of Lucozade and a load of chocolate, trying to keep the Thames water off them and got them up to him. After getting most of the Lucozade in his mouth he munched into the chocolate and we took a minute to let the sugar kick in. As I put the rations away I noticed we were sitting across from MI6, the British secret service building, I didn’t know much about the geography of London but if the James Bond movies were anything to go by I knew Westminster wasn’t far off. As we paddled back into the centre of the river we went round a bend and there in front of us was the Bridge.
With the glucose back in his system Tiarnán was getting back to normal, we wanted to finish with style so we sprinted down the last few hundred meters to the line. With Westminster Abbey on our left, the London Eye in front and our support crew among a hundred others cheering, we passed under the bridge and we finished on the biggest high I can remember. We were helped out of the boat by a group of race marshals and brought up the steps at the top of which two finishing medals were hung around our necks.
It was a surreal feeling getting that medal, I was emotionally drained from all we had gone through but the joy of finishing after the whole year of training and planning managed to keep me smiling. All that had gone into that race and here we were, finally standing on the bank beside Westminster Bridge as Big Ben tolled ten. I had expected to be in pieces but I guess I was over tired because the body felt fine. After we got the photos and basked in the achievement we got changed, got in the cars and I found I was too sore to fall asleep. We made it back to our accommodation in Reading, crashed out for a couple of hours and then we could finally talk through all the things that had happened over the past 24 hours.
Post race analysis
Tiarnán and I were a great pairing, he is an exceptionally bright guy and his attention to detail meant we didn’t come up against anything on the day without a plan on how to deal with it. I on the other had am a bit of an optimist and those of you who know me know organisation isn’t my strong suit. There is no way I could have planned that race as well as we did. That said I’d like to think my optimism pulled us through some of the rougher parts of the night.
We couldn’t have hoped for a better support crew and it was special to involve both our dads in this race. The support crew was made up of the two old men Brian Byrne and Ivan Barrett, Tiarnán’s brother Brian and the only non-relation our good friend Paul Purcell. They lead us across the English countryside, fed us and got us anything we needed along the way. They also kept our moods up and with Paul in charge of our Facebook page everybody at home knew how we were getting on. During the night and into the morning I was as grumpy as I have ever been and yet they gave us almost nothing to complain about (bar the Pot Noodle incident). I know support crew is no easy task but I think they enjoyed it and all seemed delighted to share in this experience.
Thinking back on it now, the race was very tough mentally and physically but I could probably get myself to do the event itself again. The thing that has me cringing at the thought of a second attempt and saying never again was all the preparation and the year of training. It was depressing the number of times my friends were heading out mountain biking, white-water kayaking or simply to the pub and we had to decline their offer and spend a few hours in freezing rain. While they enjoyed themselves we were cracking through ice patches on the canals, dealing with aggressive swans and all the repetitive strain injuries. That’s not to say I regret anything, if we had to pull out of the race and hadn’t finish we have both agreed we would be sourcing gear and planning our training for DW 2015. Owning a finishing medal is something I am very proud of and I love the interest everyone has shown, it’s just I now have a one I would rather not go through it all again for a second.
I would like to finish by wishing good luck to anyone else thinking about giving the race a go and if you are looking for support crew I am interested to see what that side of the race is like.