We made it: 125 miles, 27 hours and 46 minutes.
by crawlingkiwi Apr 26th 2011
Yes, a few hours longer than we had hoped, but we eventually crossed the finish line 27 hours and 46 minutes after we set out. With all the planning and preparation we had done, we encountered the one thing no-one could have predicted. Heat. All 28C of it, and in April. Normally I get enraged by the English complaining that 'it's too hot' after one warmish day, but I have to admit even I was wishing for cooler weather.
The heat really hit Helen, whom I suspect was suffering from sun-stroke after about 3 hours. She was feeling really ill and was struggling - to make matters worse, from around 7 hours she started vomiting and was completely unable to keep any food down which is not ideal in a 24hour+ race. She was able to tolerate water, so we ploughed on. The heat, illness and constant loo breaks (at least it showed we wedre taking on plenty of fluid) meant we were slipping to about 1.5 hours behind our predicted time, but if we maintained things we should be able to meet the tide window at Teddington. Our daytime support crews were absolutely brilliant (Guy with Maddie and Gabi in one car and Calum along with A who didn't even know us, in another). They kept us watered and fed (well, me at least) and even found ice from somewhere which was such a welcome relief - a cold drink instead of the hot liquid in my camelbak!
We picked things up a little zooming through Reading, which was a quite surreal experience. We paddled right through the middle of the shopping centre, with eateries and pubs and people enjoying themselves and having a sing-song ... as we trawled through the middle. At a compulsory pit-stop on the Thames, Helen was still feeling rough, but we pushed on.
From midnight to about 5am, it was tough. Helen was still throwing up anything she tried to eat as the sunstroke continued to affect her. Our night-time support were amazing - despite having to wait for us for hours because we had slipped so much, there was not a single word of complaint (in front of us anyway!). Pam and Eric waited for us some distance from the locks, then ran along beside us, having already found the best place for us to get out and back in the boat again. As most of the portages were in pitch black, we wouldn't have know where we were going, despite having done them all in daylight. It was great having someone else make decisions for us as we were nigh on incapable of cogent thought, let alone decision making. Our other night-time support came from Marthe, Josh, Isobel and Naomi (who were suffering withdrawal from not competing themselves). Again, they were able to give advice and help which was so welcome. And of course there was Phil, who was actually supporting another 24 hour crew, but found the time to support us at every lock from Reading onwards.Without any of these people, we could not have made it, but in particular Phil and Pam who found a way of supporting Helen in the wee dark hours when her illness was at its worse. I am still astounded that Helen found the strngth to continue when she was as ill as she was. We did have one funny/alarming moment in the darkness - Helen suddenly veered to the left towards another crew, while I tentatively went 'Um, Helen?' behind her. She had just fallen asleep for a second! So I forced her to talk as we had been uncharacteristically quiet for the previous 10 minutes and we both managed to stay awake.
As Helen started to improve healthwise - the turning point was half a banana handed to Helen buy a complete stranger - I started to fade somewhat. I had been surprisingly strong and energetic through to about 85/90 miles, probably about the first 22 hours. Just by Windsor, I started to dry-retch, which was delightful for Helen in front of me! This then continued until Westminster and meant I was no longer able to take on any food or energy drink. On Phil's advice we changed my camelbak to water which I was able to tolerate, but it did mean that for the last 40 miles I was literally paddlng on nothing. After Runnymede I picked up a bit and we pushed hard through to Molesey, aware that we had 2 hours to reach Teddington. Usually we can do that fairly quickly, but in our current state of exhaustion I was convinced we wouldn't make it, so we pushed hard - and did it in just under an hour. We were early enough to make the tide (had we missed it our race would have effectively been over then and there), but had to portage at Richmond at the muddiest most dangerous place I've ever been to. It involved Helen crawling along a brick wall to 'drop' in the front of the boat! But then we were onto what we had been told was the quickest bit of the race, 18 miles on the fast flowing tideway. Except it wasn't. There was no flow. Had we been 20 minutes earlier, we would have been zipping along happily, but we encountered the slack water at the end of high tide, before it starts to turn and flow back towards Richmond.
This was by far the worst part of the race for me and any help and extra work I had done in the boat on the Saturday and through the night was more than repaid by Helen, who effectively paddled the final stretch on her own. My coccys was aching more than I had thought possible and my right arm and hand were cramping - I could barely do more than 10 strokes before I had to rest while Helen just ploughed on. The huge passenger boats created massive washes which nearly through us out but eventually the bridges started to go past - wonderful markers as we crawled closer and closer to Westminster. All the other crews around us were suffering similary, none of us would have chosen to get to Teddington so late in the tide-window so we were all exhausted and depleted. But finally we came to Vauxhall bridge, with Lambeth just behind it, then Westminster came into view. The river didn't feel as big as I had expected, although it was as bumpy at times as I feared. We just concentrated on not falling in on the final stretch in front of everyone and eventually we floated under the bridge to the finish.
I had expected to feel euphoria, but to be honest, I was just so damned tired I didn't feel too much. The DW is phenomenally well organised, so there are people on hand to literally drag us out of the boat and to help us up the stairs. Then it was time for medals and photos, and a chance to freak everyone by my one white wizened hand and flaccid white feet (the blood did eventually come back). I was still unable to eat, throwing everything up which was a worry, but once home I was able to get down a protein-shake and at about 2am managed some toast
I am surprised by how well I feel. I have just one blister on one hand and apart from aching a bit around my shoulders and a sore rear, nothing else is too bad. I was woken by a dreadful pain in my hand and arm which were extremely swollen, but after applying ice and trying to get some movement back in my hand for about an hour, the pain and swelling subsided. The enormity of what we have achieved is just started to dawn - despite our fairly slow time, we were 62 out of about 130 starters. We were the 2nd Vet Ladies crew, which is now small achievement.
Although Helen and I were the ones on the water, there is no doubt that this is a team event. Without the support and help from friends and family (and complete strangers) we couldn't have made it to the start, let alone the finish.
DW - 125 miles, 24 hours
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