Going Back For More?

As I lay on the floor in a crumpled heap, a friendly fellow paddler asked me if it was my first time. I repeated emphatically that is was my last!

Well that’s how I felt at the time, as day one of the 2013 11 cities had been one of the most physically torturous if not mentally of my like to that point.

Everyday I swore I’d never do it again, and couldn’t understand how there were people back for the 2nd, 3rd and even 4th time.

By the end of the event, I’d made new friends, learnt a lot about myself and lost most of the skin from my hands. But I decided not to make any rash decisions. I’d come to do a first, and be the guy that did it on the ‘pretend’ board.

So it’s almost been 5 years, and the Friesland is calling again. It’s the 10th year of this now iconic event and before I 100% commit let’s revisit the last time.

2013- 11 Lessons from 11 Cities

12 months before I’d followed Ben Swails online whilst he had hit up the 5 day event and when he got home he inspired me to make it a goal for 2013.

I’d been racing on hard boards and on inflatable boards in 2012 and 2013 and when I first got on my inflatable Red Paddle Co 14″ Elite I realised that it could really do the business at an event like the 11 cities and that I’d also be the first to get involved on an inflatable in the solo competition event.

I mixed up the training during the run up entering lots of races to help get used to crowded start lines, distance paddling and also shorter more intense sessions. I also tried to train as much as possible on my 12’6, my thought being with limited time to train I could get more bang for my buck training on a slower board.

Tuesday 3rd

Jo, Marie and I caught the plane to Amsterdam and then boarded the train to Leeuwarden. We met the rest of team GB in the Walrus Cafe, at this stage it was smiles all round. Crispin and Dan had raced the 11 Cities the year before, Ryan had come 2nd a couple of years ago. John Siggs had brought his trusty K15 over to take on the touring fleet and Jay and Charlie had flown in from Vass to get involved. At this stage what I didn’t realise was how crucial our three non paddlers were going to be, Ali, Sally and Mark.

We registered and in full GB attire paddled the Prologue, a 2km loop in fancy dress around the City of Leeuwarden.

prologue, looking the part tanks to Ali

It was also great to catch up with the only Dutch man I know Jan Veldhusein my former overseas room mate and James Hoare who joined us for the paddle. After the prologue we got some food down and checked into the barge we were staying on.

Day 1:

So this was it lined up, camel pack on, Gps ready next to a load of people that I had never paddled with or raced against. I had no idea what was about to happen.

I Got a good start and was well up there in the top ten, plenty of board chop over the next 3km but after the first couple of bridges we broke out into the Dutch countryside in the 25 degree heat and blue skies.

I then realised that my hydration pack wasn’t working properly so I couldn’t get any water on board for the first 26km. (this is going to be lesson 1).

I was nicely in a train for the first 10-15km but then  dropped off trying to sort my water out and then had to paddle 10km on my own when the next group caught my up at the lunch stop.

At this point I was in a pretty bad way, struggling to talk, see, keep anything down however I did manage to drink some water. After a bit of a man up chat from Ryan James I got myself together and after lunch was able to work with Marie Buchanan for the second half of the day but was still not able to drink anything!

We managed to close right in on the group ahead and almost caught the guys in front of us with Marie only a few board lengths behind me at the end.

At this stage I’d never felt so bad, I’d been carrying cramp in most of my limbs since before lunch and when I finally got in the massage tent they force fed me chorizo to get some salt in me.

I’d had a good result overall on the first day but felt I’d had to destroy myself in the process. I spent the evening playing with camel backs and getting that sorted.

Day one we’re off, not as prepared as I could have been

Day 2:

I got a massive thing right my hydration!! Although I didn’t have the best start  I managed to work my way up the pack from the mid 20’s to a group just inside the top 10 by the lunch break.

Long downwind section kept things fast and a few sprints were needed to move around people who had gone off too hard. I could feel a huge difference from having water onboard.

After lunch I started well with around 7 of us winding around some tighter parts of the course which also presented quite a lot of weed (of the water based variety!). About 30km in to the days stage the guy in front of me fell in causing a full on pile up and unfortunately by the time I got back to my feet I had lost the train. I then had the next 15km to do solo where I had a few more weed issues which meant I had to stop to clear the fin. I also had to stop at one stage for directions from a passing cyclist and luckily he sent me in the right direction!

I focussed as much as I could on paddling well whilst I was on my own and although I had a few stops due to weed and directions I came in well inside the top 15 and put a good time in.

I was feeling a lot better than I did the day before but my hands were starting to look a little worse for wear, however due to feeling a lot better I didn’t really give it much consideration (another lesson).

Day 3:

Wasn’t the best start to the day as I was feeling pretty sick and couldn’t eat anything. I got on the water early where the organisers had cordoned off the start so the top 21 riders went off first, i managed to get onto the front row where I lined up next to current race leader Peter Bartl and despite it being pretty narrow I was able to get a fairly clean start.

After the first couple of km’s I was struggling to get into a drafting group and ended up on my own until quite a big draft train with fellow Brits Marie Buchanan and Jay Haysey from Globalshots caught up where i was able to slot in and stay with them up until the break.

the break was quite early and the pace afterwards was quick which lead to us catching the group in front creating a large train of at least 15 people. I’d managed to get some food in at lunch so was feeling alot better after the break.

As the stage went on a few people started to drop out which meant a few sprints were needed to stay with the leading pack.

As we then went through some winding sections and under the bridges there were a few casualties with a couple of people going in, again meaning more sprints to stay with the leading group. By the time we opened out onto the main canal with 10km to go our massive draft train had been dwindled down to 7.

By this stage all of the blisters on my hands which had been building up over the pervious 2 days had burst on my left hand meaning I could only paddle on my right hand side. We stayed as a pretty tight group went for the sprint, I maintained my speed and came through at about 5hours and 7mins.

I had to go to the doctors that evening to look at my hands.

Deal with problems early

Day 4:

The hands were pretty bad in the morning and all the help Sally, Ali and Mark had been giving us really made the difference on days like this.

Ali sat at breakfast and tapped me up, I then sat gripping my paddle to try and soften the hands up and get used to the pain.

I’d also been struggling over the last few days to get any sleep, mosquitos and apprehension were what I’d put it down too. My room mate Peter Bartl who was leading the tour had taken the step of checking into a b&b.

The start line was the most cramped so far but I got off the first 50 strokes quite cleanly when all of a sudden Crispin’s paddle hit the nose of my board sending me straight in! I recovered as quick as I could and started trying to overtake people when a guy in front of me when straight in, leaving me with nowhere to go resulting in us both going in and our boards becoming fully tangled.

By the time I had recovered I was right at the back so started the long and arduous task of making up on the lost ground. As I was able to catch up with each group I didn’t have the chance to draft as I needed to catch the next group, so each time I ended up at the front of the train trying to close down the next group in front of me.

By 10km in I had caught quite a fast group but again worked my way to the front to help try and close down those ahead of us. By the time we had got to the lunch stop I had done a 10km stretch on the front with a couple of swaps, which had brought us to within 1:30 of Marie’s group.

At this stage I really felt the camaraderie of the tour, we were a train on the move trying to gain ground on the group ahead and we were going to do it together. Whether it was that I had finally got my hydration and food right or I was just pissed about going in I was paddling well and feeling good.

After lunch we were able to close them down pretty quickly and after 5km in the draft train I got back to the front and led them over the last 15km. By the final few miles the group had shrunk slightly but had set Marie and Melanie up well to sprint to the finish.

I tried to get involved a little in the action but I didn’t do so well with my navigation of the last bridge and ended up losing my sunglasses and nearly my paddle!

So after the eventful start I was able to pull out a good result and I had certainly made some friends by pulling the draft train for a lot of the course. I was even hitting some good speeds today for long distances with an average of about 9.5kmph (if you take out the rest stop!).

down but not out

Day 5:

This was it, I was currently in 13th and a few minutes behind 12th. I felt if I had a good paddle I could do it and If I had an exceptional paddle I could be knocking on the door of 11th.

I felt good and had got used to the hand pain, it was also very British weather, wet and breezy so it was all to play for.

The start line was spacious by previous standards so everything felt good. I was off to my best start yet, well inside the top ten around 6th and in a train of three closing on the guy in front. Myself and Miguel who was behind me did a swap to work together on the train and at 3km we were flying.

We had come quite close to the bank when I felt my paddle hit something and immediately I knew something was wrong. A couple of strokes later I realised how bad it was, I tried to paddle on and nurse my paddle for a few more strokes until eventually the head snapped off.

I then found myself in a canal in Holland, with a snapped paddle 27km from the finish of a 220km race. Initially i thought about the time I wouldn’t be able to make up, then the time I’d lose and places with teh guy behind me in the rankings until it hit me that I wasn’t going to finnish.

I watched my fellows competitors come past 1 by 1, I could see that they were gutted for me but they were also racing and there really was nothing they could do.

Then what the Tour is all about came to fruition.

A Dutch guy called Vincent who I’d never met before, then came past who was racing that day only and seeing that I was stuffed very kindly gave me his paddle. He was then in the same situation as me. Incredible kindness and when I saw John at the break we both agreed it was this sort of sportsmanship and camaraderie that really made this such a great event.

Vincent is about 6’3″ so I had to paddle holding the shaft and sprint as fast as I could to make up lost ground.

At the next bridge one of the local guys gave me a paddle and was able to give Vincent his back to him who was now in the safety boat. It was a good length but bigger than my usual blade. I slugged it out as fast as I could and overtook two more trains in front of me leading them for a while until I pulled away.

I then got a glimpse of the group with the leading girls in about 5km from the lunch stop. I picked off a few of the stragglers before lunch and ended up paddling with Jay Haysey from Globalshots into lunch.

At lunch I was able to pick up my spare paddle when Jay and I set off at a good pace where we were able to close the gap from 3 minutes down to 30 seconds on the group in front of us over the last 8km to the finish.

It had been another day of doing it the hard way but I finished far enough up to stay in the top 15 and may had even secured 14th place.

The feeling once crossing the line was, pain, relief, achievement all in one. Every paddler whether touring or racing had done the same thing and no mater where people finished it was this joint achievement that really made the moment.

It was great being with Jay in the final stages, seeing Marie just after the finnish and then having the pleasure of watching Jo and John come over the line in what had turned out to be a nice day after all.

So what were my 11 lessons.

1. Train how you’ll race, get used to drinking on the move, your packs your carrying. Don’t try anything you haven’t done before.

2. Mark your bag, a big union Jack really helped me identify my gear at lunch.

3. Prevention is better than cure, tape the hands before it’s too late.

4. Take mosquito repellant

5. Man Up ( this solves all problems you fail to deal with)

6. see lesson 5 ( worth repeating twice)

7. The main aim is to survive and you’ll probably do quite well

8. Things go wrong for everyone

9. Careful where you stick your paddle.

10. Support is essential, whether it’s from fellow team mates or you are lucky enough to have a non paddler travel with you it makes a huge difference, before we had even started we were already pretty poor at making rational decisions, getting ourselves to the right place at the right time or dealing with pretty mundane tasks. The support I got from my fellow GB paddlers but especially Ali and Sally, got me from almost dropping out at lunch on day one through all the trials and tribulations to over the line on day 5.

11. Sign up early, you know you’re doing it, you’re committed so you know it’s happening.

Back in the present, if I can take these things on. Then you never know I might actually enjoy it a second time around.