Fresh from her record-breaking success in the Devizes to Westminster canoe race, Kat Burbeck gives an insight into the motivation that kept her and partner Alex Lane going during the 125-mile marathon. Their inspirational effort has won them a place in the March nominations for the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year award
When I was twelve years old I sat in assembly as the headmaster praised the outstanding accomplishments of sixteen sixth-formers who had completed the Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon over one Easter weekend. He talked about the gruelling 125-mile race and how just finishing was an amazing feat. On the list of top ten physical tests to do before you die, and frequently described as the “Canoeist’s Everest”, these sixth-formers had done something really inspirational and it sparked a flame inside me. At that moment I knew that I was going to do that race when I was old enough.
The Devizes to Westminster (affectionately known as the DW) starts in the small rural town of Devizes in Wiltshire and follows the Kennet and Avon Canal, passing through sleepy West Country villages, under low swing bridges and around historic flights of locks until it meets the Thames in Reading. From Reading the Thames passes through the well-known towns of Henley and Marlow as well as sweeping past Windsor Castle until you reach the outskirts of London. As you glide through Staines and Kingston the river widens and becomes more daunting as you approach the tidal part of the river below Teddington. From here you cruise through Richmond before passing under bridge after bridge, Kew Bridge, Hammersmith Bridge, Putney Bridge, until the river is vast and intimidating and you are a just a tiny spec bobbing around in the ripping tide and swell. Then, finally, you spot Westminster Bridge, sitting under the watchful gaze of the London Eye. Two men in dry suits stand at the bottom of the steps after the bridge calling for you to paddle towards them. But the likelihood is that your mind and body are no longer talking to each other. These strong men lift you firmly out of your boat and gently push you up the stairs towards your long-awaited medal and your enduring support crew and fan club.
There are three ways to take on this race: as a junior double competing over four days while camping on the riverbank; as a single over four days; or as a senior double completing the event non-stop, paddling through the night to hit the first tide of Easter Sunday. This is the main event, the pinnacle of ultra-marathons, a real test of the body and mind. Some crews will never have canoed until four months before the event and some have canoed all their lives. The challenge is: can you keep going for more than 16 hours (and up to 30 hours depending on ability), night, getting out of your boat more than 77 times to run around a lock (known as a portage) and still be able to paddle the Tideway?
Everyone who completes the race has overcome so much just to finish. Yet the DW is a race and there are some entrants who already believe they can complete the event and are willing to push themselves to race it, too. They have made a race plan and selected their invaluable support crew who will follow them through the night, feeding at locks and keeping watch on the time/weather/paddler needs. These are the elite of the elite as even the toughest of athletes have not managed to conquer the DW, as Sir Steve Redgrave found when he fell short in 2012.
When I reached the steps of Westminster in 2003, aged 17, with my long-suffering school friend Will, my first thoughts were not of how amazing it was that we had just completed four tough days of kayaking after only three months of training. I didn’t think about how awful it had been camping in the freezing March temperatures and having to cook our own food after six hours of paddling each day. No, my first and only thought was – “when can I do this again? I need to do this again because I can do this better next time”.
The 2016 event was my eighth attempt. It is an important one because eight completions gains you entry into the 1,000-mile club. I am one of only three women, and certainly the youngest of them, to join since women were first allowed to participate in 1973. I was inspired in 2015 by my fellow female athletes who, in mixed crews (one man, one woman), gained podium positions for first and third against a field of men. This had never been achieved before in this male-dominated event. They had shown that women have just as much ability to challenge in this event. I was inspired all over again. I wanted to be part of the “fastest ever all-female crew”.
Now I needed to find a like-minded partner. I didn’t have to look far: 2015 bronze medallist Alexandra Lane, at 21, was looking for her third DW attempt to be even more impressive than her previous two. I wasn’t sure we could better her third place, but we talked about trying to get a top-five place and about breaking the senior women’s record, which had stood for more than 20 years to Danielle Sellwood and Sandra Troop. The goal was set and our support crew recruited. Our support crew leader had a plan. He would run the show and he was clear that the only thing we had to do was get our heads down and paddle. Which we did …
A hard winter’s training all came together on Saturday, March 26, 2016. The nerves were high as we lifted our boat, “Old Faithful”, into the water. There was no turning back. She might have been old, battered and a little heavier than some of the boats the “elite” would choose to use, but she was solid, strong and trusted. Storm Katie held off long enough for us to get to Westminster, although her rain in the previous days had made the river fast. Unfortunately, it also made the canal path very muddy so each portage was a challenge as protecting ourselves and “Old Faithful” was key. Covered in mud from slipping over, we continued to make good progress. Our support crew were amazing: they fed us, kept our drinks full and added layers as the air temperature dropped.
I must add here that this is not a glamorous sport: support crews put food into your mouth with exceptional accuracy, but there is always that bit of banana that still ends up on your face. You drink from catheter bags hanging round your neck full of questionable coloured energy drink, while the layers you end up wearing look like you raided your grandfather’s Mackintosh collection. But the better fed, hydrated and warm you are, the more chance you have of completing.
As it got dark, we had a bike accompany us for 20 miles to light up the dark canal. Its light even shimmered off a little kingfisher who was flitting about in front of us. In the calm of the night we didn’t talk much. A good partnership in a boat doesn’t need words. We know how the other person is feeling. The odd joke is shared to pass the time and you form an intimacy that no-one else can understand: you eat together, drink together and sit inside the same boat together for 18 hours. Have you ever thought how often you need the toilet in 18 hours? Fortunately we have a pump in the boat. Did I mention that this is not a glamorous sport?
Alex and I didn’t just share this time in the boat together; we shared a goal – a passion for excellence, a desire to show that ladies can do DW, a confidence and determination to still be “racing” after 15 hours. We felt strong and our training came through at the later stages of the race as we were told: “The record is yours to take now, your time is great. The question is, how much do you want to beat it by?” We were no longer looking to squeak in below 18 hours 47 minutes, we were looking at a time of 18 hours dead. Anytime around 18 hours is exceptional. It would be sure to help us into the top five, maybe higher. We had no idea what the other boats were doing, where they were, or whether they were still racing.
As we passed under Hammersmith Bridge, with around 50 minutes to go, the crowd fell silent as a message needed to be passed to us: “Under 18 hours is possible – if you want it.” Of course, we did! But you can’t sprint for 50 minutes. We kept our cool and stuck to our plan. Our energy levels were low and we hadn’t stopped for support in over an hour. We were on the Tideway and needed to use the flow and stay safe from the swells of motor boats. We needed to make it upright to Westminster. But, yes, we wanted it!
Finally we saw the London Eye and below it Westminster Bridge. As we passed under the penultimate bridge we heard: “You have one minute to make it under 18 hours.” How do you respond to that with 200 metres to go after so long on the water? The only way we knew how … a sprint finish. I have never heard such noise. I couldn’t look up as it was more important to keep the boat straight and flat, but the screams as we went over the line told us we had done it. We didn’t cheer, or cry. We just quietly steered the boat to the steps. There was no energy left for celebration – we had spent it to take our much “wanted” time of 17 hours 59 minutes 45 seconds.
Seconds later we were ushered away from the steps. Smiling faces all around us. Words like “inspirational”, “record-breakers”, “smashed it”, “hard-core” were being echoed through the teary eyes of our official and unofficial supporters. Alex and I could finally appreciate what we had done. We had taken the record by more than 45 minutes. We had won the ladies’ race and our tenacity to chase a sub-18 hour time had earned us second place overall – the first all-female crew to get on the podium. It was not excitement that followed, nor shock; it was quiet pride. Our race plan had been executed perfectly. After 13 years and eight attempts, I had found the winning formula. The planets aligned and we had the physical and mental ability to capitalise on it. For the first time my thoughts were not of doing it again, or doing it better. I was calm in the knowledge that we had outperformed ourselves. We were exceptional. My thoughts were quite simply: “Thank goodness I don’t have to do it again, if I don’t want to …”
Kat is one of the March Action Women of the Year 2016 contenders – read more here.
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