My body is less happy than a kitten in a kennel. My muscles don’t ache, they weep. I’m pathetic, but I’m up at six all the same. We’ve been back in the abode of old friends Chris and Dave and Dave and Gem, and they’ve been thrusting hot drinks and warm food our way. Leaving the lair makes things doubly hard.
It has become overwhelmingly obvious why six or seven months of preparation are recommended for this event. It is brutal. I’m not an unfit chap, but I hold my hands up to everybody who completes the DW. From my tortoise-like viewpoint I have witnessed some incredible feats of endurance already, as well as receiving a reminder that my inside-out armadillo mentality (thanks Danny) does not substitute for a lack of physical training, nor paper planning: poor Dan and Em are not looking forward to another day of being put through the portage-seeking mill.
Resisting Danny’s help at a portage
A couple of miles after put-in I’ve paddled clear of Newbury and my upper half has warmed up sufficiently to allow a roughly decent pace. The task at hand is put into perspective when a carbon-boat paddler flies past me at a lock and responds to my ‘good luck mate’ by saying, ‘you too, you’ve got my utmost respect for taking this on in that thing.’ He cast a look over my solemn kayak, then ran away like it was a bad smell.
I can’t let myself think about the mileage today. How the organisers have the gumption to make the second day longer than the first is beyond me, especially since yesterday’s thirty-four miles turned me into a quivering and pale imitation of a man. The thought of another thirty-six is, literally, sickening, so I’ve mentally moulded this second section into one intangible lump of information, just so the figures don’t cause too much upset. As a consequence I’m not paddling from Newbury to Marlow via Reading and Henley today, I’m just paddling somewhere. It still might take a while.
I can almost smell the Thames. For six hours I’ve been paddling solo, sharing the waterway briefly with only a couple of fast moving kayaks. My right wrist, jarred yesterday during a portage, is causing some discomfort when gripping the paddle but I don’t think it’s slowing me down too much. Periodic joy comes in the form of some flow as the canal approaches Reading, weirs sluice off excess water as portages approach and then when I’m back in the water there is usually a tributary pouring water back into the canal, which whisks me along a couple of miles per hour faster than usual. Only once I’ve experienced this a couple of times do I realise just how tough it can be paddling in still water, self-generating forward momentum, crawling eastwards.
The portages are getting harder. Sometimes there’s a good three foot drop from solid ground to the canal, and as the day goes on and the rain slicks up the cut lowering myself into my surrogate home becomes a task in itself. Thank god I’m alone most of the time, I’m a right state with my elbows and upper arms clutching for grip while my legs flail around madly to find a place in the boat. Sometimes I’m caught out by a passing rambler or even an inquisitive swan, but there comes a point when one must accept that all dignity is lost and for me that point probably passed two hours into Day One. I have no shame remaining. I began wearing clean and harmfully bright bermuda board shorts beneath my blue wind jacket and spraydeck. Twenty-odd miles into Day Two you can’t tell where my shorts end and legs begin, I look like a lit cigar, brown all over, red on top.
Portaging on the canal
Mixed feelings after the last lock before Reading. I say goodbye to Em and Danny knowing I won’t see them for nine miles. My clothes are all soaking and there’s nothing dry remaining. I’m feeling ok but am sodden and cold, and the clock is ticking towards 5pm, with sharp winds gusting around with no apparent schedule. I may have sufficient energy to continue, but I’m becoming more vulnerable to injury as the day wears on, another twenty-five portages have torn the strength out of me. The canal flies through Reading and I whizz with it, soaking up almost torrent-like flow as I paddle through the town-centre under the watchful eye of work-leavers and shoppers and youthful crowds. Even feel a bit like an explorer, passing through by boat and paddle in a world of walkers. And then Reading has gone and I’ve popped over the canal’s last portage, and find myself at a T-Junction: the Kennet & Avon behind me, the Thames awesome in its width opening out ahead. I could probably nip off towards Birmingham with a swift left turn, I thought, and then absent-mindedly pushed out into the river, and took a right.
There’s a quite bizarre portage within the first two hundred metres of the Thames, and I was thoroughly confused when, with the river continuing straight ahead, I was asked to pile out of my banana, recite my crew number, and then walk fifty metres along the bank before crawling in again. As if getting in and out wasn’t already enough of a bother, one eager helper spotted my concern and attempted to swiften my passage back to the water, but only managed to flip my kayak off its wheels. I didn’t have the strength left to harbour strong feelings about the incident, another couple of seconds won’t harm. Poor bloke just stood there looking sheepish.
Four miles and an hour later I was blindingly cold. A consistent drizzle had permeated my every pore and I was quite sure I now resembled a bizarrely dressed prune. After the Kennet & Avon’s restrictive width The Thames had become fascinating and wide, with its well conditioned cruising boats and luxurious riverside residences, but the sheer expanse of the river meant that shelter was nowhere to be seen and the wind drove down the river to delightedly slap me in the face every couple of seconds. Paddling along a wide river took away all my sense of speed, which is always there when you’re a couple of seconds from the bank of a canal. The enormous electronic Thames locks make the canal portages look positively wimpy, which wasn’t good news for my right wrist, which was beginning to spasm as the rest of my body chilled up. I’d be paddling along and suddenly my right hand would just lose its gripping ability and the paddle would spin off over the boat, which was of absolutely no benefit to anyone. Teeth chattering and shoulders tightening, I reached the second Thames lock just as a couple in an inflatable canoe got there. ‘Brilliant,’ I thought, ‘another overtake!’ I was delusional, of course, I hadn’t yet overtaken anyone that day.
‘Are you racing?’ the lockmaster addressed the couple, and they looked at each other as if he’d asked them whether they were rekated. Two heads shook in unison. ‘Do you want to just take the lock down, then?’ asked the lockmaster. They nodded, and the muddy person in the yellow kayak behind them became just that little more depressed, before groaning his craft out of the water and falling back bum-first into the mud, the kayak all over his belly. I was dying for the loo by now, and had also gone a little bit crazy. If yesterday had been hard this was starting to take the biscuit, and as I followed the lockmaster’s finger and wobbled myself awkwardly to the outdoor urinal I realised that 36 hours earlier I’d been in the highest of spirits, fit as a fiddle, and positively gushing with the opportunity to take on the Devizes to Westminster in a big plastic kayak. Fast forward to the present time, and I was moving like a lifetime arthritic, and looked like something out of a swamp movie. My fall from grace was completed when in the urinal I decided in a fit of clarity that the only way to warm myself up was to pee on my hands. Didn’t even bother to take the gloves off, just went for it, four hours of fluid intake emptied itself all over my mits, and only when I’d finished did I look at my outstretched and now slightly discoloured fingers in total and utter disgust. This feeling of negativity towards myself increased when it became apparent that Thames lock toilets don’t involve taps or sinks of any kind. I just trudged out, the lowest of the low, dripping hands dangling at my sides. And of course, they weren’t the faintest bit warmer.
Minutes later, back in my boat and totally past the very small fact that I’d just wee’d on myself, I made the noble move to re-energise with a few dried apricots and a handful of cashews, only to be a bit crestfallen when an awakingly familiar smell eminated from the very fingers that were shovelling healthfoods into my gob.
It couldn’t get much lower, I thought, but twenty minutes later I reached Marsh lock, where Em, Danny and Anna were waiting with warm clothes and new drink, and having no choice but to cross the narrow v-shaped lock by lifting my kayak to shoulder height and shuffling fifteen metres through a congestion of fences and gates I felt a subsidence in my right arm that wasn’t welcome. Once to the other side and surrounded by smiling, supportive faces, I collapsed emotionally. In the past I’ve pushed a skateboard over 80km in a day through searing winds carrying mid 40’s temperatures, my skin and throat cooked and will tested to the limit, but these two days on the water have outstripped anything I’ve been through before. Maybe I didn’t have as much respect for the event as I should have, maybe I underestimated the sheer effort required for multiple portages of a heavy plastic kayak, maybe I overestimated my own ability to complete this event, whatever the reasons, my physical condition had plummeted throughout the two days and my emotions were tailing closely. Typically, Marsh was the busiest of the portages by far and so a good crowd were in place to see a confused mixture of tears and then laughter as my three stalwarts readily took the piss - I assume to keep my spirits high and ego in check. I was shivering uncontrollably with tears running down my face, doing that thing that men do when they have no physical option but to cry, yet still try their hardest to suck it up which ultimately results in an embarassing burst of sobbing and snot when the emotions rip forth. I felt quite pathetic, but ten minutes later was swathed in new, dry tops and loaded with nuts and chocolate, which gave me hope for the final ten miles.
Back on the water, calamity struck. I hadn’t realised the full extent of damage to my right arm until I’d moved 200 metres away from the lower wharf at Marsh. The beautiful town of Henley borders the Thames at this point, but my right arm, allowed to tighten up after an extended period off the water, took my full attention when each pull of the paddle invited excruciating blasts of pain. It wasn’t long before I realised the problem - I suspected elbow ligament damage with possible a torn muscle - was critical. I was floating mid-Thames, trying again and again in vain to get my right arm moving, disbelieving that it had actually packed up on me.
Stranded so, I was, that all of a sudden there was a horrendous clickety-clack and two six or seven man rowing boats descended, one either side, hulking creatures of the water pulling for all they were worth under the war cry of a micophone’d man on a bicycle who was pelting along the towpath. Their speed just reminded me of my own, but it also gave me an idea. There was no way I was giving up just because I’d lost the use of an arm, so I kept straight using the kayak’s rudder and began to pull with just my left arm, using my body weight in a sort of reverse-rowing motion to supplement the lesser energy of a one-handed paddle.
The remaining nine miles were slow and road access meant that I wasn’t to see Em and Danny up close until the finish point. Having left Newbury not long after 9am I eventually clambered over the lock in Marlow at around 19:20, and then after slight confusion over where I was meant to finish, found my team and two lone officials waiting there in the fading light.
I’d gone over the time allowance of 10 hours for a day’s paddling, but was given the option of continuing the next day as long as I started at quarter to seven in the morning. Even then, any suspicion that I was becoming a safety risk would result in my disqualification, a certainty were I to pass Teddington and reach the choppy tidal section of the Thames. Later, barely able to clutch a mug of tea in my right hand, we took as a team the decision to pull out of the 2009 Devizes to Westminster. My arm wasn’t healing anytime soon and despite a keeness to continue with one arm there were two overbearing reasons to stop. The first was the almost certain heartbreak of pushing on another 38 miles (with one arm!) only to be disqualified on the last day once I’d reached the tidal section. The second took into account the future of The Great Big Paddle. Continuing would have meant risking considerable long-term injury, and potentially scuppering the rest of the project. Sometimes the hardest decisions need to be taken and in this case sense took precedence over bravado, but there’s now a lingering feeling that I have unfinished business with the DW. The sensation of defeat and failure doesn’t sit comfortably with me, but lessons have been learned, and proof is rife here that any kind of endurance feat should be prepared for fully and properly. Next time, I’ll have no excuses.
The next day the three of us drove back to Wiltshire to recoup on Aslan. As I approached the boat I noticed that it was covered with something colourful. Much peturbed and suspicious of the behaviour of local youths, my fears were put aside, partly, by the shocking truth that Laurie and Maddy from the Family Adventure Store had gone to great lengths to welcome me home post-DW. Aslan, the poor thing, was covered in balloons, and much to my disgust, bunting. Thank you, very much!