This is a blog post I have been putting off for weeks because I actually do not know what to write, it was a turmoil of emotions and pain and something I did not want to relive through writing for many weeks. So here goes, there may be tears during writing this.
I have competed in two SUP 11 City Tours, both over 5 days to complete the 220km distance. This year it was time to do it non stop. I had spent months training only for this event, I had spent many, many hours on the water paddling at a steady pace and just getting miles and paddling hours under my belt. This training was different to the previous year, I did no interval training and no sprint work. During the 5 day event sprint work is important as you need to get a great start to get you clear water and onto a fast train. In the non stop race, there would be no fast start and no drafting allowed. This was a race that was not down to how well you can draft but all about the physical and mental strength of the individual.
The day before the race I was really excited, the skippers meeting whizzed by and I had no worries, other than about me getting lost. This had been my biggest concern for a while. I get lost easily on a river I know so what hope was there for me during the night on my own.
On the morning of the race I still felt pretty positive and just wanted to get going and then the race was delayed for over an hour due to thunder storms coming in, this was the correct call as the storm passed over right at the time the race director told us it would. I then received a phone call saying the start would be in 15 minutes and to head to the event site. This is when I started panicking, I was questioning everything, could I actually do this, did I make the correct decision to paddle a 12’6 board in a race where everyone paddles 14’, was my nutritional plan ok. The tears started flowing and I had to tell my husband I was really scared. He was great and reassured me that I had trained hard and I had this covered, just go and do what I do and PADDLE.
I got on the start line with 3 other paddlers, and we all set off on our adventure. It was an easy, relaxed start as we all knew we had a long way to go. My only thought as I took my first stroke was that I would take my last paddle stroke at this very spot the following day. My first 45km was easy going and I did not make any stops, I had planned my race to only stop at what would be a regular day stop on the 5 day event, which equated to 4 stops in total.
At the first stop I was met by Pete, my husband, Marije and Mayola, it was great to see them and I felt good, the sun had been shining and the wind had been relatively light. My only issue was I could not seem to eat, I was using Torq hydration and gels which was acting as food during the paddle but I really needed to get some solid food into me at the stops. Pete retaped my hands as blisters were already starting to show and sent me off on my merry way, we were still on schedule as I had only planned about 5 minutes at each of the 4 stops.
I now headed off on what would be day two of the 5 day event, my most hated stage every year, and true to form this stage was equally as bad during the non stop event. It all started ok and as this was going to be a stage during daylight a few of my buddies had agreed to paddle alongside me for some of this stage. Andre Le Geyt joined me on the water and paddled more than 20km with me and we met up with Chris Moutsakos, Peter and Laura Bartl and a few other paddlers, It was great to paddle and chat as this made the time pass quicker. A few of the guys left just before the lake and that left Andre and myself crossing the lake. In the next hour I was so happy that Andre said he would cross the lake with me. The weather had been good but was actually starting to get too hot. I secretly wished it would cool down as I am not a fan of paddling in any heat, I would much rather have colder weather. Well I certainly got my wish, we were about 0.5km into the 2km lake crossing and the storm rolled in, it started with what I can only describe a tropical rainfall, the rain was so hard it was painful when it hit us and we were only in shorts and a race vest for me. Hey, at least it cooled me down but then came the thunder and lighting and it was getting closer, Andre assure me it was a mile or two away but within a minute it was right on top of us, we were now paddling in the centre of a storm, thankfully my board is not carbon but I was waving a 6ft carbon paddle in the air, not a good plan. My phone then rang and it was only of the 11 City volunteers, they wanted to know if I was somewhere safe and how I was doing. I let them know I was in the middle of the lake and had no option but to keep going but we would lay down on our board, with paddles under us and try to head to a sheltered bank. I felt pretty safe as Andre is a foot taller than me, so as long as he stayed close it would get him rather than me. I actually found myself laughing so much during this and was sure we would be fine.
The storm passed and we finished our crossing of the lake. When we got back on the canal my pit stop crew were waiting on me and told me I had to get off the water, as instructed by the race director, as another storm was coming through. He informed us every paddler had been ordered off the water. My support crew took this time to get my board ready for paddling through the night, they cleaned my board down, checked it for damage and attached my Cats Eye’s lights. I took this time to get dry clothes on and finally get some solid food in me. I was taking on liquid food and gels every 20 minutes whilst paddling so still felt good. After an hour of being off the water and the weather looking better I was ready to get back on the water but had still not been instructed to do so. I then saw Mike paddle past and wondered what was going on as we knew Mike was a couple of km behind me when I got on the lake. As it turned out Mike’s support could not access him on the water, therefore he did not stop and had continued paddling for the last hour. We put a call into the race crew and let them know what was happening and asked if I could get back on the water, thankfully they said yes. The race crew had also informed me that the compulsory time I had off the water would be deducted from my finishing time.
I stupidly thought the worst had happened and the rest would all be plain sailing. I was sadly mistaken and true to form I got lost and I mean really lost. Due to us having lost 90 minutes with a delayed start and another 60 minutes due to the storm we were now in complete darkness coming to the finish of what would be the day 2 stage, about 90km into the race. I knew I only had 1-2 km left before my second stop and was feeling reassured, then Pete called me to let me know I had gone the wrong way and he told me to turn around and directed me to the finish. Sadly, I am one of those people who struggle with left and right and where he told me to turn right I turned left and ended up 2km into a nature reserve in shallow boggy water. Pete then called me again and told me I had gone wrong again, to say the least I was fuming and my language was terrible. He told me to turn round and paddle under the road bridge and turn after the railway bridge, my response was “how do I f****ng know it is a railway bridge, there are no f****ng trains on it and I can’t see a f****ng thing”. He then told me I must turn left after the second bridge. I informed him that I had just seen someone and they had told me to turn right after the second bridge and take the short cut to the rest stop. Thankfully Pete told me “you came to do the SUP 11 City Tour in its entirety, not to take a short cut because you got lost, so turn left and take the correct course. If you take the short cut you will be cheating yourself and you will have to come back next year and try again”. He also remembered I struggled with left and right so instructed me “paddle under two bridges and after the second bridge turn to port and then take the next starboard turning, paddle about half a km and turn to starboard again and then you will be at the rest stop” Perfect I now understood. I was ANGRY, hungry and had just dropped a phone in the water, so true to form the day two stage was a rubbish stage. I eventually got to my second stop and really had to readdress my situation. If I was to keep going and finish the event I had to quickly get over my anger at having got lost and due to this, yet again, losing my second place position by a long way. The support crew of Ali, Mark, Andre and Pete were amazing at this stop, one changed my hydration, one fed me, one got me pain killers and one checked my board over. This is not an individual event, this is certainly a team event. They turned me around within the 5 minutes time slot I had allocated myself at stops and got me back on the water and into the dead of night. The next 5-6 hours were going to be long and lonely. But I had the knowledge that I was going into day 3 stage and this is my favourite day. I headed off listening to Scotland the Brave and singing along. Scotland makes tough people and this race was not going to beat me. Pete told me before I headed off I was about to get hours and hours of headwind but don’t let it get me down as I had focussed most of my training against the wind. I like upwind paddling so the next 45km were good. I was starting to really suffer with pain in my legs and especially my feet and knees and was hoping the pain killers would keep me going. This stage I just got my head down, listened to music and sang lots. I am a bad singer so was great that I was in a situation I could sing at the top of my voice and no one could hear. I made a few small wrong turnings in this stage but nothing I could not correct myself. As I got to the end of the next 45km and my third stop I met up with Todd, Pete and Ritske and all went smoothly. I knew I had broken the back of this ultra endurance race and I was going to finish. Quick pit stop, more food, more painkillers, hydration and gel top up and set off. At this point I was feeling really positive as I knew my next stop would be in daylight. My only issue now was that the painkillers were not assisting me with the pain in my legs and feet and it was becoming a big issue for me.
Next stop was in Dokkum. I knew this stop well and knew there was no chance of getting lost. It was a long straight paddle, but still straight into wind. In total I had about 9 hours of upwind paddling through the night and it was getting tough now. At this stop the whole crew were there to meet me again and they were outstanding. Ali had made me a smoothy as she knew I was in a situation where I actually could not chew any food, Mark and Pete got the lights off my board and checked it over and Andre dosed me up on pain killers. I headed off for the last 28km. I knew in about 4 hours it would be all over. Andre got back on the water with me and chatted and told me crap jokes to keep my mind off the pain I was going through. I was hoping for a downwind section on the last stage and I got about 4km of downwind and then straight back into a very strong headwind for the last 3km heading into Dokkum. At this point I fell off my board, the only time during the whole race, and struggled like mad to get back onto the board, my legs were beyond painful now. I swore at the wind and just got my head down and battled through. Once in Leeuwarden I was out of the wind and almost at the end. Ritske, Ali, Todd and Wilma were on the boat and came to drive alongside me for my last 500 metres. We had Scotland the Brave blaring out of the boat and I knew I was about to finish. My tears were flowing, the pain was unbelievable but I was going to finish like I started, smiling and strong. Then I saw the finish line, I was about to be the first female to complete this crazy race, the first person to ever complete it on a 12’6 and all in a good time.
When I set off I wanted a time of under 32 hours, but knew realistically with the weather and the wind forecast I would be closer to 34 hours. I was so shocked when I was told my official time was 29 hours and 48 minutes. This time was better than I could ever have wished for but a lot was down to my support crew, who were absolutely amazing.
My thanks go to Hans (the race director), I never at one minute felt unsafe, despite the horrific weather. Your professionalism shone through. All the volunteers, especially Mayola, Marijje, Todd and Ritske. You guys had hugs and smiles for me throughout and this kept me going. All the people who were on the side of the Canals supporting me, Ruurd and Erik I saw so many times and just seeing them day and night was overwhelming and gave me energy. All the people who were tracking me when I got lost and got the message out to lots of people to help me. People got in cars to come and find me and get me going in the correct direction. My biggest thanks go to my husband, Pete. He helped me train for months, stayed up the whole time with me, fed me, bandaged my hands, calmed me down when I was lost and had the biggest hug waiting for me when I got off the water. Pete put in as much effort as I did to enable me to complete this race.
Five days later I decided to get back on the water for the final day stage and was overwhelmed when I finished fastest female on the water on that day.
Thanks for the support from Black Project Fins, Cats Eyes Lighting, Torq Fitness, SUP Shop Online and Charlie Grey Paddlebboards.
If you asked me a month ago if I would ever do this again I would have said NO. Now, I just don’t know.
I loved and hated every minute of it.