Without a paddle, skill or much else

I am not good at kayaking, I’m shockingly bad if I’m honest, I’m a novice. Seeing the skill and appreciating the difference in class from myself and those taking part in the race this weekend, it made me wonder why. Why take part in a race when the gulf in ability is so grand, as to put my own body in danger and to finish hours after the real kayakers. I do it, because I shouldn’t do it, because it makes no sense whatsoever and only at the point where the challenge seems impossible does my brain think, yeah let’s give this a go, let’s see what happens, how bad can it be. I might be wrong or I might be right, but I kind of think that the harder the challenge the more people will take an interest. If that’s the case then hopefully about millions of you will know about the Congo and Women for Women. Because this weekend was gruelling, demoralising but satisfying.

The paddle itself doesn’t look that complicated piece of equipment, essentially a broom with a table tennis bat at either end. How hard could it be to make one, to make a functioning one: practically impossible.

At about 6am on saturday morning, I was up a tree with a pocket knife in my hand, sawing off a suitable branch to use as a paddle. I’d looked around for some sticks on the ground, but they were all soft and broke too easily. 20 mins later I’d got the branch, after a bit of handy work, I’d carved two areas to grip, so I wouldn’t get blisters, and the attempted to fasten my frying pan to the stick with some string. The other end I’d split and forced some sticks down there and tied it up. I’d love to say that this worked well, but within minutes of paddling it broke and I was back to paddling with a 7 foot stick.

I had gotten into this mess at about 11pm the night before. After a strong start to the race, the sun was down and it was almost a blackout, I was kayaking with a head torch and another strapped to my boat, but they weren’t powerful enough, and the light barely stretched two metres. I first heard the rushing of water and felt the boat quicken its pace, then suddenly I could make out a felled tree in the river that was stuck there, I tried to steer round it, but this just took me side on to, smashing the kayak on the side. I made a feeble attempt to right the kayak, but it wasn’t enough and the kayak was flipped, sending me straight under the tree and trapped underneath.

I managed to pop out the kayak underwater and came up for air, I smacked my head on the boat, realising I’d come up between the tree and boat. I tried to stay calm, but it was cold, dark and in the back of my mind, I knew I was in trouble. But unlike last year when I caved in, my mindset was completely different, the capsize made it real and more than just endurance, but about survival. I didn’t have distance checkpoints in my head anymore, rather my brain was full of survival checkpoints: get out the river with kayak, get out of wet clothes, dry off, make fire, hot drink, food, make shelter, work out plan.

I really don’t like the dark and I’m scared of water. So standing neck deep in a river when its pitch black is horrible. I knew I had to be quick, so attempted to swim the 30 metres to the river bank. I tried to kick my way there, but the flow of the river took us down stream and pushed me under the boat. I clenched my knife in my teeth, in case I had to cut my legs free from anything in the water, eventually I made the bank ramming my kayak up the side and out the way. The next 30 minutes I scurried back and forth getting dry and fixing things- keeping busy and pushing how bad the situation to the back of my mind. A few other kayakers came by and helped, letting the organisers know my position and getting my kayak up on to the side of the river. I tried to make a fire, but the wood was a bit damp, so I resorted to using my stove and gas canister to make a blowtorch to get it going. The wood quickly started burning, but the flames and licked the gas canister and the flames were out of control, making a flame about a metre or so high. I panicked about it blowing up like a grenade so kicked it into the river, to put it out, before retrieving it and then knocked up some stella chicken noodles and green tea. I could feel the warmth flow around my body and my mood change. Things were bad, I knew my paddle was gone and checked the map, knowing there was nothing around, the organisers couldn’t reach me till the morning at the earliest, so i wrapped myself up in a sleeping bag (thank you Will Hardy) and then an emergency blanket I had left from the London marathon the week before. I was pretty warm to begin with but then the rain, thunder and lightening began, soaking any part of me that couldn’t get under the blanket. As I tried to sleep, my phone rang, I nearly slit my body open with my knife. I was so worried about being in the wild that I slept with my knife open, it was Coop. Taking calls from Coop and Maggie was a massive morale boost, both of them keeping me chipper.

I managed about an hours sleep, but I was distraught. Not because of the cold, rather I’d fucked up again. I couldn’t finish the race, the paddle was gone and the organisers expected me to quit. I came here to finish it, but within hours my dream seemed over, it hurt even more that I was so bullish about finishing.

I phoned the organisers and told them I was carrying on with a stick. I wasn’t quitting that easily. I needed to show him I was real about finishing, so he’d do his best to get a paddle. He didn’t seem optimistic about me getting a spare, but I had to carry on, I didn’t want any regrets.

Kayaking with a stick is hard, almost impossible. It is all effort for little reward, turning it left or right took minutes, whilst navigating passed fallen trees, bridges and rapids was scary and stupid. I knew if I went in again, that could be it, my last chance to gain some redemption from last year. It was slow and frustrating, but it was all I had, I couldn’t give up. A call from hardy and messages from others kept me upbeat and I began to embrace the challenge of finishing the race.

About 5hrs of kayaking later, I’d taken a call from a random number, telling me I had a paddle if I was committed to the finish. I met Lazy Turtle at a bridge to get the paddle, in my excitement, I’d fallen in the river again, soaking me through (I’m so bad at this). But Lazy Turtle was kind enough to lend me some more thermal trousers and boil water to get me warm. After that break I carried on.

I took the decision to hitch a lift a little down the river, as I’d lost 14hrs or so because of the fall, I couldn’t make this time up and the check points would close otherwise. I didn’t want too, but it made sense for my safety, I couldn’t take another fall being in such a remote place.

I was just happy to keep going and I tried my best to set a decent pace. I was so frightened of rapids and obstacles in the river that I had this bizzare look of concentration of my face, just focused on the river, grinding my teeth and screaming at myself to work harder when I took a rest. I loved it, it was so easy for me to quit, I had the perfect excuse for giving in, I had no paddle. But despite this my resolve to finish firmed up. I wanted to prove to the latvian guys I wasn’t a quitter, I may be awful at kayaking, but I could still finish, I wanted their respect. The guys I met along the way either supporting the other racers or those taking part, were a massive catalyst for me getting through it.

It was coming to about 10pm and I was pulling into the second check point. After dropping my phone in the river and a few portions of soup I carried on. Having done what I thought was the hardest rapids, earlier in the day, I hadn’t thought about others down stream. As we were leaving someone mentioned a set of rapids about an hour down the river. There was a cliff, which got the river swirling and could crack you against the rocks if you went the wrong way. No one knew which side of the river the cliff was and there were a variety of opinions on how to tackle it. This sounded bad enough in the light, but in the pitch black taking on rapids is probably the most idiotic thing I’ve done. As I kayaked towards the rapid, I was a mess. I wanted to get to the finish, but what began to scare me was the fear of another capsizing. Falling out and being smashed against the cliffs in the dark and having nothing to keep me warm was petrifying. I’d promised Maggie and my family I’d stay out of trouble and there I was having been awake for over 30hrs I was now kayaking in the dark towards some rapids. As I got closer thunder and lightening erupted echoing all around, rain lashing down the river, exploding light around me, this only heighten my senses, hearing the bubbling river turn into crashing waves and not knowing where it came from is petrifying, the river quickened, pushing you closer, scanning the feeble headtorch looking for the cliffs. Why did I always need a piss when danger strikes, pissing into a bottle I could hear the rumble of the rapids, I couldn’t stop, finally, I added a little bit extra to the river from my urination station and quickly pulled over the spray deck just before i began bouncing through the rapids squeezing the paddle tensing my whole body, I’d gotten through it, physically shaking with cold and panic.

The next 5hrs were hard, being in the dark, searching out things of danger in the river, trying to stay awake when you body is ready to collapse is horrible. Hallucinations began to play tricks in my mind. I saw a bluey green light that I tried to follow into the night, occasionally I’d see a red light that looked like a kayaker in trouble, I’d paddle to catch up, straining my eyes and seeing him submerged in water and trapped in a dead tree. I shout but heard nothing back and never getting closer, I was chasing shadows and lights and never getting there. Ahead of me I could see a giant cruise liner, I paddle to get out the way, but it kept coming towards me, I shouted for help, it carried on, eventually I realised it was smoke on the water from a capsite. These images carried on, seeing snakes in the river, a sea lion and tiny green bears running along the bank, they threw rocks at me so I threw them gummy bears and nuts. Only when I got closer, the rocks that they were throwing were nothing more than little rock falls. My headed was messed up beyond belief, I sat in my kayak making animal noises, talking at great length to the different objects scatter around my boat. Maggie phoned, this helped to speak to someone, but got freaked out by me speaking to my headphones, telling them to “be quiet as I’m on the phone to maggie”. The whole sequence was bizarre, I spent the next 14hrs kayaking to the finish. I arrived broken, but happy, knowing I’d battled through an awful lot to reach the finish, I’d made it.

There is no special finish line, like the big marathons where thousands greet your arrival, rather it was much better. Handshakes and congratulations from fellow racers meant a lot. What I didn’t predict was the sauna that someone had brought down to the finishline. I thought they were joking at first, but there sat a small wooden old gypsy caravan, I pulled it open and in side was the best sauna I’ve ever been in. Chatting about the race, feeling my muscles unpick themselves and the sweat and dead skin drip of my body.

I finished the race how it had pretty much how I started it by falling back in the river, this time it was my own decision, washing the muck off my body and the disappointment from last year when I had left latvia angry and upset.

Maybe kayak racing isn’t my thing, because I’m really bad at it and I fall in and put myself in trouble. But through this trip and others, I’ve learnt more than I could from running and I bloody love it. I wouldn’t have wanted the race any other way. The moments of fear, crisis and self doubt made this fun, coming through each challenge and preparing for the next.

I have a choice though about doing things like this where, I put myself in trouble, but others don’t. Many women in the Congo, face far far worse that what I’ve gone through and ever will. So please remember why I’m doing this, take an interest and learn about the DRC, share this video (http://vimeo.com/m/31188445) or drop a few quid to women for women: http://www.justgiving.com/runforcongo


One thought on “Without a paddle, skill or much else

  1. Don’t give up kayaking just yet, because if you managed to paddle 100km last year and 200km this year, then next year you definitely will be able to do the whole thing.

    Here are some videos from this years race:

    You might also be interested in participating Võhandu Maraton, which takes place in Southern Estonia usually one week before Gauja, therefore being perfect preparation.

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