April 16, 2012, by Fraser

30 hours in a kayak – the things Professor Kevin Shakesheff will do for charity

Professor Kevin Shakesheff is Head of the School of Pharmacy at The University of Nottingham – and highly respected within his field. What you might not know about the Professor is that he loves a challenge. From marathons to triathlons, he’s done it all, pushing his mind and body to the limit to raise money for charity. In this blog post he relives the 125-mile kayak race he undertook this Easter in aid of Children’s Brain Tumour Research – all 30 hours of it.

Splashing about on the river

This Easter weekend, myself and my friend and fellow graduate David Bache attempted to finish the Devizes to Westminster (the DW) International Kayak Race in a two-man kayak. We were raising money for the University’s Impact Campaign (specifically Children’s Brain Tumour Research) and Parkinson’s UK. The Race sounds deceptively pleasant: a 125 mile paddle down the Kennet and Avon Canal and the Thames River. It is, in fact, described by many as one of the world’s hardest endurance events. This year the normally understated event (I’d never heard of it 10 months ago!) had added glamour due to the entry of a team including five times Olympic Gold Medallist Sir Steven Redgrave and three other gold medallists.

A few 40+ year old friends and I have developed a bad habit of agreeing to do stupid endurance events when we have a very rare night out with beer. We’ve done the usual suspects – London Marathon, various triathlons – and started to do some scary events (Toughguy 2010 scared the life out of me). We agreed to enter the DW having never been in a kayak and thinking the race was equivalent to doing a marathon without the knee damage. The last 10 months have been dominated by kayaking as we came to realise that (a) we’re not very good at it and (b) we’d signed up to something that is much more demanding than anything we’d tried before.

Burning 25,000 calories

The race has a 40% drop out rate (including many people who aren’t rubbish in a kayak) and a good time in “good” conditions is 24 hours. This year was not good conditions because the lack of rain meant there was no flow to help on the last 60 miles of the Thames. It is estimated that you burn more than 25,000 calories and you have to get the boat out of the water more than 77 times to walk/stagger around locks. The key point in the whole race is that the last 17 miles is on the scary tidal part of the Thames. You can only do this last section when the tide is going out. We had to reach the final lock before the tidal section at Teddington by 6.15pm on Easter Sunday otherwise we would not be allowed to finish as the tide would be against us.

We set off at 2.30 pm Easter Saturday from Devizes heading to Newbury (target time within 7 hours). At most locks we were met by one of our amazing support team and they fed and watered us.  Newbury is 35 miles into the race (with more portages than any other part of the course). We reached Newbury in a disastrous 8 hours 45 mins. Already so far behind that we had lost nearly all our contingency time for getting to Teddington.

“I was in a mess”

Next milestone was Reading. We arrived 2 hours late at 5am Sunday morning. I was in a mess. Ibuprofen, acidic sports drinks and various ‘recommended’ foods had upset my stomach and I was physically sick for the first of many times. It was very dark as we set off from Reading on the Thames but within an hour the sun had risen and we had a massive boost as our bodies agreed it was morning. I’m a bit ashamed to say that the next boost was hearing that Steve Redgrave has retired due to tiredness. As a fellow competitor I should have felt sorry for him but selfishness just made me think it would sound better when I had to pull out as well.

We progressed through Henley and Maidenhead and approached Windsor by lunch time. We were still 2 hours behind but I was certain that tiredness would delay us further and we would miss the tide at Teddington. Windsor is the most common site of team withdrawals. Far enough in (80 miles or so) to be exhausted but too far to go to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Agony and sickness

The next 30 miles to Teddington were agony for both of us. I had developed the worst heartburn I have ever experienced and both of us had painful wrists. I spent most of the time trying to work out a way of telling Dave that I couldn’t continue! He was incredibly strong throughout the race and I didn’t want to be the one to let him down. Somehow, and I really don’t know how we did it, we arrived at Teddington with 15 minutes to spare before the tide window closed.

As we crossed Teddington lock we were euphoric and nervous. The outgoing tide would help to accelerate the boat most of the way to Westminster and for the first time in 12 hours I dared to think we would finish the DW. The final 17 miles were often terrifying. It was dark (again) for the last 5 miles through Chelsea and onto the London Eye.  The passenger boats on this section create a large wake that can easily capsize a narrow kayak. We later heard of a team that fell in 5 times on the tidal section and another whose support team stopped them paddling with 7 miles to go due to exhaustion making it too dangerous (they carried the boat for 4 hours to cross the finish line on foot).

Close to the finish

After about 2 and a half hours of pain and fear on the tidal Thames a lifeguard boat sped towards us and told us that we had to get out of the way of a passenger ferry that was advancing from behind us. It was dark and we were disoriented. The lifeguard did a fantastic job and we stayed upright. I thought we still had an hour to go but as the lifeguard left us we asked him how close to the finish we were. He told us Lambeth Bridge was around the next corner and I knew we were within 5 minutes of the finish.

The first view of the brightly lit London Eye and Palace of Westminster against the black sky will stay etched on my brain forever. As we went under Westminster Bridge there we hundreds of supporters and confused tourists cheering every stroke. Some of the remarkable volunteers, who make the event possible, stand in the Thames in dry suits and grab the boat at the finish line. Finally after over 30 hours we were out of the boat for the last time and walking up the steps to see the very tired support crew. We finished in 90th place (out of 111 finishers) with over 40 boats not getting to the finish.

Huge thanks to our support crew (Ang, Steve, Sophie, Paul, Ron (sorry you missed the Masters), Steph, Harry, Oscar, Ryan, Adam and Louise). We have, so far, raised about £3,000 for the two charities. The event was incredibly painful but not even a tiny fraction of the pain felt by patients and families suffering from cancer or Parkinson’s Disease. So please spread the word and ask people to sponsor us by choosing www.justgiving/kayak4CBTR (for Children’s Brain Tumour Research) or  http://www.justgiving.com/David-Bache (for Parkinson’s UK). Finally apologies to Sir Steve for the schadenfreude and telling everyone I know for the next 50 years that we beat you in the only boat race we ever started together.

Professor Kevin Shakesheff

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