As much as doing DW is a physical challenge, it is also and perhaps more so a mental challenge and the battle in my head had already began before reaching the start line.
Neither of us slept that well the night before, the apprehension had kicked in, in the words of Alfie on the morning of the race ‘it just got real’.
Upon arrival at Devizes, it’s the last minute stress of check in and equipment check before you can head for the start. Oh and the thorough application of Vaseline to the nether regions, I cannot recommend this enough.
125 miles to go
We were now good to go and sat on the start line, next stop Westminster. Actually no, next stop was Pewsey, then Great Bedwyn, then Hungerford, then Newbury and so on and so on. I knew I couldn’t let myself think about the finish, 125 miles was still incomprehensible in my head.
I was really pleased to get going, the support you get at the start from onlookers is a real boost and it was smiles all round. The first long stretch to Pewsey without any portages gave us a chance to get into our rythm and we knew one short stop to relieve the numb bums 10 miles in wouldn’t hurt our time.
The hardwork started to kick in after Pewsey with 35 portages between there and Newbury, our pace in the boat wasn’t the quickest, so we knew we had to work hard at the portages and run the majority of them to make up time. We had been taught well though and we felt confident in our system, a lot of counting down from 3 and talking to each other.
Once we hit Newbury, it was new territory from there-on-in, every stroke was one more than we had ever done before. The stretch from Newbury to our next target Reading/Dreadnought involved some low bridges and tricky portages to navigate. Our one hiccup came at a very low bridge, on first sighting we had decided to portage it, but after watching another crew go under it, albeit in a rather unorthodox way, we decided to go under it too.
This proved to be the wrong decision, Alfie took a knock to the head and we went for a swim. From then on we always went our gut instinct. Luckily we wasn’t too far off a change of clothes and hot food at dreadnought.
By the time we reached Dreadnought it was dark, we were wet and cold but our morale was boosted by a warm welcome from our support crew and fellow club members. After a tricky change into fresh clothes and some hot food, we continued into the night and onto the Thames.
Into the night
Paddling through the night was definitely the biggest challenge mentally. I don’t think we were prepared for just how dark and disorientating it would be. We were so grateful to all those crews with lights on the back of their buoyancy aids, navigating the river became a game of chase the light. However not every light was what it seemed, so I would recommend knowing the twists and turns of the river as much as possible.
The paddle through the night was where being a first time crew really showed, we just wasn’t as confident as the more experienced crews.
In the early hours of the morning tiredness really started to kick in, I even closed my eyes at one point out of curiosity to see what would happen. Our support crew were brilliant throughout but particularly at this point, they really kept us going as we started to hit the wall. They forced us to eat and drink, and they gave us games to play to keep us talking and our brains working whilst we paddled. Every portage that we saw them they would let us know when we would meet them next. Just seeing them became another incentive to get to the next portage.
Portages in the dark could be disorientating, you’d be blinded by flashes light from the torches of support crews and you often had some obstacle to manouver around. By this point just simple steps were difficult as your legs began to suffer from being in the boat for so long, I totally missed one big step and ended up on my backside. In the end it was a case of follow the leader as crews started to bunch up throughout the night.
All that said the darkness was in a strange way a comfort because I knew that when the sun came up, we would be a lot closer to finishing.
Light on the horizon
As the horizon began to brighten so did our spirits. However some confusion about the window of time for hitting the tide at Teddington caused some last minute concern that we wouldn’t make it. Our support crew told us we needed to up our pace, too many people were waiting for us now to let them down. Upping our pace was the last thing we felt like doing but that is what we did, the confusion was soon resolved though and we were able to return to cruising speed.
Daylight had broken and we portaged for the penultimate time, it was time to say goodbye to our support crew who we owed so much. The next time we saw them would be at the finish.
With a final pep talk, change of water bottles and some extra energy gel packs they sent us on our emotional way. We knew we had done it now, however the tideway would provide one final test.
We made a final portage at Teddington, where the marshals seemed as happy as us that we had made it this far and the end was in sight. We set off for Westminster, both of us with tears running down our cheeks.
We were now on the tideway, only 17 miles to go and with the help of added flow from tidal thames we would assumed we would fly to the finish.
However the closer we got to the finish, the more our bodies hurt. All the aches and pains now seemed to come to the fore as we bagan to relax knowing that the finish line was in sight. We had to beach the boat a couple of times to get out just to releave the pain of sitting down for so long and pressure on the sores that come with it.
Then about half way down the tideway the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse. We were battered by torrential rain and a strong head wind. Westminster couldn’t come quick enough, it turned into what felt like the longest 17 miles of our lives.
But through sheer grit, determination and I think pure stubbornness we made it. Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament appeared round the corner and after 25 hours, 17 minutes and 8 seconds we passed under Westminster Bridge were met by the safety crew on the steps. All the pain disappeared and I think it’s safe to say we were both overwhelmed with emotion and the greatest sense of achievement we had ever felt.