The Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race (DW) is a 125-mile, 77 portage, non-stop canoe race taking place in southern England. The race starts in Devizes, Wiltshire and finishes just downstream of Westminster Bridge in London, opposite the Houses of Parliament. In addition to estimating the hours needed to paddle the long distance as well as portage the numerous locks, racers must plan their Saturday starting time based on when they think they will reach the last 18-mile tidal section of the course in order to maximize the amount of ebb tide. If timed correctly, the tide gives paddlers a substantial boost to the finish line. It’s also possible to get to the last lock too late. If it’s closed before they get there, the race is basically over. As a result of this, most, if not all racers start Saturday afternoon, and paddle throughout the night trying to make the optimum tidal window.
This year, for my first time, I paired up with veteran racer Mark Bragg to try and push for the overall win. World marathon champions, DW legends, and a slew of other international athletes hotly contested for this award. However, with our previous racing experience and training schedule, we were confident we could put on a good effort.
On Saturday, April 23, my team started off at 4:11pm. We pushed down the calm, endearing waters of the Kennet and Avon canal in Devises, trekking down the winding waters, portaging ~40 locks, avoiding canal boats, and battling to keep healthy in the extreme conditions. After fifty-two miles on the docile canal, we entered the river Thames at Reading, 45 minutes past midnight early Sunday Morning. This marked the psychological halfway mark, and the beginning of the next 55-mile leg to the finish. At this point, even though we had been paddling for over 8 hours, we were feeling fresh, strong, and confidant; and this feeling was only increased when our support team told us we were an hour up on our projected time and in first place.
As the night progressed, and the fatigue began to set in, we knew we needed to push harder to maintain our lead. The frantic climbing and running through the numerous portages, which were essentially dimly lit obstacle courses, was the only break in the bone chilling monotony of paddling in 38F for 8 hours through the night (mild Easter weekend weather in England, or so we heard.) Hour after hour passed with the sky showing no signs of breaking into dawn. With heavy eyes, and tired bodies, we continued at the hardest pace we could muster.
After what seemed like eternity, the pale blue of the distant morning sun started glowing in front of us. With new vigor, we started paddling with new strength, even though we knew we still had about 5 hours left before the finish. Several hours later, we reached the critical last portage before the Tideway: Teddington lock. As our support crew jumped into action giving us the last bits of food and equipment to last us to the finish line, we learned that we were still 20 minutes up on our projected finish time. We left Teddington at 8:50am on Sunday, more than sixteen hours after we set off in Devizes. Now, only 18-miles of the wide, fast flowing Thames separated us from Westminster Bridge. Paddling as hard as we could, all we could think about was the finish. We were cold, wet, tired, wincing with pain, sleepy, and slightly disoriented, but we pushed on. And finally, after 18:42 minutes we reached the final destination: Westminster Bridge. The green, ornate bridge was definitely a sight for sore eyes (and bodies.) As we pulled our boat up the steps, under the watchful eye of parliament and Big Ben, the feeling was breathtaking and ecstatic. We later found out that we came in a respectable 4th place overall with the fastest time on tideway. A remarkable way to spend one’s Easter weekend.
Even though the air temperature around us was a bit warmer than normal years, the presence of hypothermia was still just below the surface of the murky water. And not only did falling into the water present an issue, but the constant splashing of paddles made the choice of hats absolutely critical. For this race, I used both the Headsweats Race Hat and the Headsweats Winter Dome Beanie and was amazed. The Race hat, which I have been using for years, was the perfect implement to protect from the afternoon and morning sun during the race. The Winter Dome’s quick drying fleece meant that I could rest assured my head was protected from the cold. Even when moist, the beanie never stopped performing. I definitely could not have performed as well without the confidence delivered by the Headsweats Race Hat and Winter Dome.