At the beginning of the year, I placed the 11 City Non-Stop Tour on my 2016 race calendar, but at the end of July I made the tough decision not to do the race. I had just finished racing over 750km in one month and the MR340 race certainly put my body into major fatigue while still recovering from the parasite illness of the Yukon event. The MR340’s 61.5 hours of paddling and 2 consecutive nights sleep loss is not something you recover quickly from. There would be no way for me to recover and train properly for the 11 City Non-Stop Tour or for that matter any distance race so soon after the MR340 race. Of course I could do the 11 Cities but I really need to allow my body to recover, become well again and I knew if I did do it, I wouldn’t be as competitive as I would like to be and because of that, probably not enjoy it.
In early August I got a message from Marije (one of the event organisers) asking if I was attending the race. My reply was no, I was not intending the 11 City Non-Stop Tour this year. I found it easy to provide excuses why I was not doing the race – I needed the time to recover from the racing I had just done, I had no 14’ board, and I had no support Team and so I keep making excuses convincing myself I was making the right decision. However, Marije had now firmly planted a seed in my mind and I went from No, I’m not doing it, too, should I, shouldn’t I do it and then a few days later I found myself messaging Marije back saying “count me in”. What had I gotten myself into now – I can never seem to resist temptation.
As I was on holiday in Hawaii until mid-August, I was not going to have any chance of getting some of my normal flat water distance paddles in and with no bike to spend time on, get my legs strengthened. Luckily I did have my great travel and paddle buddy Bart De Zwart and I was thankful to him for including me in his early morning training paddles. These certainly got my heart pounding.
I arrived home 2 weeks before I was due to leave for the 11 Cities and caught a chest infection probably from the planes air conditioning system, so back to no training while I was trying to shake it. I was really feeling under prepared for the 11 Cities and it began to weigh on my mind. I knew the majority of paddlers in the non-stop race and this would be their one big event this year and the one they had worked towards. I was going into it with no distance or strength training since mid-June and most of my time not racing was spent trying to recover. Why did I say I would do it, why? I started to worry and began to not look forward to it – I wasn’t in a happy place about doing the 220km Non-stop.
I had however managed to solve my two big problems; Alec from Aqua Inc offered me a 14’ board, which was a brand new just developed Low Volume board 14’ x 23’’ and my husband Pete had offered to fly straight from Milan to Amsterdam on the morning of the race to be my support. With my mind eased of these two problems I still worried about my race ability with the chest infection and lack of paddling preparation compared to what I have done in the past.
I drove to Friesland 3 days early to enable me to paddle the board before racing. I seem to be making a habit of racing a board I have never paddled before in an important race. I got an hour on the board and all seemed good. I loved the low volume and the board shape and it felt super stable for 23’’ wide.
The biggest enjoyment of this race is the family atmosphere and this is what keeps binging me back every year despite me always saying “I will never do it again”. It is very rare for me to do any race more than twice, but this would be my 4th 11 City Tour (2 x 5 day Tours and 2 x Non-Stop), with a pretty special 5th Tour already being planned for 2017.
The day before the race I hung out at the event site and caught up with friends. It was great to see everybody, but the race and knowing I wouldn’t be able to perform as I would like was still on my mind. To be honest I was still not feeling positive about this race, I was still sick and was pretty lonely as I was there with no support, so every minute I was on my own I spent worrying about how little I had trained since June.
On the morning of the race start I was going to start the race knowing my support was in another country. I got on the water for the start, questioning what I was doing there so under prepared so I was happy to hear the start gun as I had to turn my focus to paddling. I didn’t want to blast off from the start line and become involved in an immediate battle with someone, I was confident in my race plan and the average pace I had set myself for the race. My head still wasn’t in the right place for this race and after 20 minutes I was completely on my own paddling – and that was going to be the way it was for me for the next 29 hours. As the race wore on, I kept replaying the start in my head and the lonelier I got the more difficult it was thinking about the start and seeing the other paddler’s pair off and paddle together. The easiest way to get through a long distance paddle is to have company. It takes your mind of the boredom and pain.
I was so grateful to see Pete on the side of the canal about 4 hours in as that meant I would be able to chat to him every now and again. It was great knowing the whole Team was now together. He was able to let me know who was paddling with who and if I was gaining or losing time to those around me and at the stops he had things organised so I didn’t waste time at the stops – I had planned 4 stops for hydration and food refills with a maximum stop time of 5min at each stop.
7 hours into the race I was struggling with my new board’s deck pad – an issue that if I had paddled it more for longer periods of time would have been sorted before the race. I already had serious pain on the balls of my feet so I had to stop and put boots on. I was seriously struggling with the pain and also the boredom devils in my head. The “go get them paddlers” and the “what are you doing this for, you are not prepared” devils in my head were having one hell of a debate as the boredom levels increased.
At this point I was sitting in 7th place of 12 paddlers and only a few minutes behind 4th, 5th and 6th who were paddling together. Although the monotony was playing a big part in my negative feelings about this race I was constantly pushing to catch up and overtake the paddlers in front. I had caught up earlier in the race and was then overtaken, so for me there was no reason why I couldn’t do it again. I managed again to make up a 14 minute deficit and overtake them coming into the 90km mark. However, I had to make a stop at this time and get my board out of the water as I had an issue with my lights not working. The others were paddling strong and had a different race strategy to me – it really was turning into a tortoise and the hare style of race. This put me once again 5 minutes behind and then, absolutely true to form, I went the wrong way – 4th to 6th as easy as that. My phone rang and as it was well into the night so I knew there was only one reason for it. I had taken a wrong turn and had to correct myself. This now put me 20 minutes behind the 2 paddlers in front. It was all going to be about my paddle strength and focus through the night and not letting the 2 ahead of me have any rest. Again, it was a long lonely paddle through thick mist and the inability to see past the nose of my board. I must admit I was scared and every minute felt like half an hour. I hit submerged items, I fell in the water and the pain in my feet and legs was unbearable. Sometimes you just need a little lift and the best thing that could have happened would have been to see Pete frequently, he always makes me feel positive and it reminds me we are in this together, we are a TEAM and a damn great team. As I was now in countryside that was not going to happen so I went to my second best treat during this kind of race, a large can of Red Bull. Red Bull helps me focus, makes me feel alert and gives me a fuzzy glow. Prior to having it I was crying, I was scared and I was so, so lonely. It assisted me so much. My head got back into a good place and I got back to paddling. I don’t use Red Bull for energy, I use food for that but I always use it to help me focus. The 6 hour stretch to my next stop felt like 30 hours but thankfully I made up time and got back to 3 minutes behind the 2 paddlers in front.
Despite wearing gloves for this tour, I could feel blisters were occurring and the pain in my legs and feet was torture. I was now taking pain killers every 4 hours. For the first time in an ultra-endurance event the loneliness was destroying me. Every other race I have done I have chatted with people on the water. This race was teaching me a lesson about a weakness in my mental strength and something I have to work on. The darkness of night seemed never ending and daylight was a long time coming. However, when it did come it did not raise my spirits. For some reason this race was getting to me. I think on reflection it was not any one thing but combinations of things that I felt were conspiring against me. They were little things like paddling by myself, knowing I was not fully prepared so in my mind underperforming and getting lost. I just wanted to get to my last stop. Almost 1km from my last stop Janneke passed me going the other way, so I knew I was back to almost 15 minutes behind. She was now without her paddle partner and was still looking strong as we past each other. As only 3 females entered this race it was so great to know Janneke and I were so close to finishing and I was hoping Carolina was still going strong. I knew she was behind but Pete had stopped taking about her position behind so I assumed she was more than 1 hour away.
When I got to my stop I explained to Pete I needed to get off the water and stretch my legs and I just needed to spend 5 minutes with people so he allowed me a 10 min stop. At this point I felt that with everything I had going on and after seeing Janneke had left her paddle buddy and looked strong heading for the finish, catching her would only happen if she had some misfortune and I did not want that to happen. I resigned myself to 6th place and enjoyed my 10min while Pete cleaned my board down, checked it over and got my feet raised above my head to try and get some of the swelling down.
I got back on the water for the last 28km happier and set off. Fifteen minutes in I saw Albert sat on his board not moving, I stopped to see if he was ok. He said he was in so much pain and was struggling to paddle through it. I sat down on my board to have a chat and gave him my last 4 pain killers. I thought that adrenalin and knowing I was so close to the finish would get me through and Albert needed them more than me. It was important to me that Albert finished. I had been following the amount of training he had done for the event as he was so close to finishing, he just had to do it.
Passing Albert meant that I was 5th overall and 2nd female but that wasn’t much comfort as a brutal headwind was against us for the last 28km. This headwind added an extra 90 minutes onto this leg compared to my non-stop race last year. 10km from the finish I stopped at the iconic ice skating bridge. I was tired of eating so gave all my liquid food to Pete to lighten my load, drank 2 cans of Red Bull (I think one was meant for Pete) and pushed to the finish. I hit quite a bit of boat traffic from this point onwards and fell in twice, oh and still had that bloody headwind. I got back to Leeuwarden and was 100m away from the 2015 finish line when I remembered the 2016 finish line was moved for the non-stop race, which added just over 1km to our race. What else is this race going to hand me?? I hated every second of this additional 1km before crossing the finish line. I finished the 2016 race about 10min quicker than I did in 2015 which because of that headwind was outside what I was hoping for.
It was great to see Pete and friends at the finish line but even finishing could not bring a constant smile to my face. This was a difficult race for me mentally compared to same race last year and I believe it was all down to me being on my own for all but 5km of the race. I will forever be thankful to Michiel Van der Pol for paddling 5km with me. Last year I had the company of Andre Le Geyt and a few other paddlers for some of the race and it made a World of difference. It was compounded by a lot of other issues which normally would not have been issues with a different frame of mind. This year’s race has taught me a lot.
On finishing I was sad to hear Carolina pulled out at 160km along with Patrick, who also raced non-stop in 2015. Eight individual paddlers and one Team out of the 12 who started finished the race. 25% of the paddlers failed to finish this year. I was happy to finish in 5th place overall and also to be the 2nd female, close enough to Janneke to keep her on her toes and keep her in a race for all but the last 28km.
With the benefit of hindsight should I have competed in the 11 Cities Non-Stop Tour? Of course I should have but also with hindsight, I should have set myself realistic goals. 3 times during the race I caught up to or passed Janneke and in doing so I over exerted myself 3 times. In doing this I knew that I could be in trouble at the end of the race. While I had the endurance I was tired from other racing and I didn’t have the speed and in the end the power to drive into the wind which I normally like. I learnt a lot in this race which will help me in the future doing more ultra-endurance paddle events.
My advice for anyone fancying this race next year, work on leg strength as much as upper body strength, try and find someone to paddle with and if you want a great result choose this race as your main ultra-distance focus or leave at least 3 months between events.
Whether you finished or not it took a very brave person to set off on the start line and everyone should feel proud for taking on this challenge. One of the best things I like about ultra-endurance racing is that although you are competing against one another, everybody wants to see all the other competitors finish and stay safe.
I mentioned earlier that I already have plans for the 2017 11 Cities Non-Stop Tour. Well I will be on the start line again next year for non-stop but not as a racer. I will be the sighted guide for a blind paddler, which, could be interesting as I don’t know my left from my right but coming from a sailing background I do know my Port and Starboard. One of us has some learning to do. This particular challenge has its own unique set of difficulties even before we start paddling but for me the good news is, I will have company and someone to talk too.
Thank you to Aqua Inc for the awesome board, Velocitek for keeping me informed with distance, time, and speed, Black Project Fins, who have supported me from my first year paddling to keep me straight, stable and fast and Red Bull for the mental boost when I needed it most. Your assistance and support in making everything possible, allowed me to complete in my 4th 11 Cities Tour.
Thank you also to all the volunteers who make this event special and to my husband Pete for flying in to be my support. Pete actually lost more sleep than I did due to his event the weekend before the 11 Cities event. At least I had a goodnights sleep the night before the start, he didn’t. 4 hours sleep the night before the race, 1.5 of which were on a plane which meant that I drove us home back to the UK after the race so he could be at work Wednesday morning.
Now it is time to get my head and body sorted and go into the next race with a more positive attitude.
Thank you and congratulations to everyone