The crowd gasps at Tom’s masterful control of the kayak

October 3, 2009 at 12:16 am | Posted in Wet | Leave a comment

quadrathlon-logo-for-webWell I’d planned on the Devon coast-to-coast for the last weekend in September. But, that plan was a bit shaky, given that I only hatched it in mid-July. There is probably a joke in there somewhere about hatching plans and ending up with egg on your face, but you will have to finish that one off yourself; I have an epic story of damp struggle to write.

Anyway, I lost a couple of weeks training in August due to busy-ness and maybe idleness and certainly holiday-ness, so I decided to defer my c2c entry to next year (oh yes), and as I did so I began to dimly remember that the Awesome Foursome quadrathlon was on the same weekend… The race information says that it’s “an extreme event, where each discipline should only be undertaken by competent athletes”. I’ve never been described as disciplined or competent. Or athletic, really.

So, a couple of emails later, and I’d booked myself a place and hired a kayak. The nice quadrathlon man said he only had a general-purpose kayak left, but to be honest that sounded quite nice and unthreatening. Like I said to him, my main concern at that point was not falling out of it.

I spent the week before the race (800m sea-swim, 30k bike, 10k kayak, 10k run) watching videos of kayaking on YouTube. Mainly ones about how to get out of the boat when I’d capsized, seeing as my two practice trips had been with sit-on-top ones rather than sit-in-and-get-stuck-in ones.  I didn’t bother with videos about going in a straight line, because I’d already practised all that easy nonsense in the sit-on boat. I was more concerned with not being trapped upside-down in a burning kayak.

Oh, and I also asked quite a few fellrunners for advice. I reckoned they were bound to know.

Jump forward, when I registered at the start on Saturday morning, they said “oh, you’ve got the general purpose kayak, that’s going to be hard work”. But that was ok, because I was feeling quite happy, buoyant even (sorry). I was wandering around thinking how nice it was to be having an Adventure.

The hire-kayaks lived 400m up the canal from the start, so I had the opportunity to have a little practice paddling it down to get ready.

It was then that I realised it was going to be a Long Day. Being an expert on this now, I know that general-purpose-kayaks are very easy to turn. In fact, they won’t stop bloody turning. Turning is their default position, their factory setting. They are never happier than when they are turning. If boats are girls like they say, then the lady is not for going in a straight line.

Not as quick as these

Not as quick as these

Fortunately, I had a coming sea-swim to take my mind off it. But as I walked to the start, my smile had become slightly more fixed.

The swim was good, even if I was a bit pedestrian. So pedestrian in fact, that you had to get out of the sea and run along the beach halfway through before going in for a second lap. It was nice though to be mindful about it being my last sea-swim of the year. And as I weaved though tethered boats and found the swell increasing near the breakwater, I thought of someone naming me their adventurous friend, and I felt less like I was dressing up in someone else’s clothes.



Run to the bike, and I’m a bit more in a friendly element. Tribars on the swooping bends down into Widemouth, and I’m passing cars and beginning to catch people. Cautious on the twisty lanes at Millook, and pushing hard and definitely on the 1-in3 up-and-out, lifting the front wheel on the bends.

Fast(ish) and smooth then on the main downhill road back to Bude, picking up person after person, reminding myself to be sensible but also wanting to start the kayak with as many people behind me as possible.

Then in the film of all this, everything slows down a bit. As I got in the kayak (without falling out, proud of that) the announcer on the PA said “blimey, six miles is going to feel a long way in a GP kayak”. And didn’t it just.

The next hour and a half is both a bit of a blur, and at moments crystallisingly clear.  The, excuse me, bastarding boat would go everywhere apart from forwards.

The course was laps up and down the canal, and for a marvellous 20 seconds every lap I had to turn round a buoy at the end, and the boat was brilliant. But for the other ninety solid, frustrating, bloody-minded, sweary, frustrating minutes, the boat went everywhere I didn’t want it to go. I must have done 12k instead of 10, with all the weaving. The poor people trying to pass me did a few extra bits as well. Not to mention the fast ones coming the other way, playing chicken with a boat-bound fellrunner with Tourettes syndrome.

Twice, I gave up fighting the auto-rotating boat and just did a big circle. The (small but entertained) crowd looked puzzled.

The only saving grace was that by the time I was on my last lap, almost everyone else had finished and I could use both sides of the canal. In a ricocheting sort of way.

Fortunately, by the time I got to the end of the boating, the PA announcer had turned his attention to the people who were already finishing the run…

The coastpath at Bude

The coastpath at Bude

And, it’s actually a marvellous run. A couple of miles along the towpath glaring at the canal, then muddy fields to the coastpath and miraculous views and on-your-toes-running and a sense of strength and speed and motion.

At some point along the way there, I stopped being almost-last, and stopped apologising to marshals and just thanked them.

I think if the race had finished with the kayak, I may have felt different. But finishing running strongly in the last of the summer, in fell shoes feeling sun-hardened ground beneath me, and knowing that I had done what I’d come here for, I felt a quiet and self-contained mild happiness.

After, I half-happily paddled my comedy-kayak back up to the hire place, and chatted with a nice woman about boats. We looked at the long racy boats that the people who’d booked early had paddled, and I asked what they were like to steer. Rubbish, she said, all they do is go in a straight line.

After a chat, we agreed that sometimes a straight line isn’t such a bad thing, and before I stiffened up I went out on the canal again in one of the straight-line boats.

And it was at that point, half an hour after swearing “never again”, that I began to think about maybe next year…

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