May 2014

Recreational Representative

Recreational Representative

The TDU committee will be nominating a candidate(s) for the position of Recreational Representative on the Board of Canoeing Ireland at the end of next week.

If you are interested in this position please contact the TDU committee by the 5th of June at If you know someone else you think would do a good job let them know by sharing this post.

Thank you!

Devizes to Westminster: Scouts and Diabetes

The Devizes to Westminster completely shattered my youthful ideas of invincibility. It was by a long shot the most difficult challenge I have ever undertaken and even a week on I was still reeling from the swing between emotional highs and lows. The stress of last minute organisation to the excitement of finally starting off and everything working well, then the low of overestimating how far we had come, the joy of hot food and a gear change in Reading, the misery of exhaustion and navigation through the night and finally making it under that bridge we had been dreaming about for the past 12 months.

A plan emerges

As with many of the crazier things people do in life the first plans for our attempt at this marathon began over drinks on St. Patrick’s Day 2013. We were inspired to attempt the race by two of our scout leaders Andy O’Connell and Paul Tyrell who ten years previously planned and finished the 125 mile epic. The scouts were fundraising at the time to invest in new equipment so as well as 9 months intensive training the two lads aimed to raise €20,000. Along with a driven support crew and the scouts themselves they managed this amazing feat and firmly inscribed their names into the history of Malahide sea scouts.

We too decided to enter the race to help out the scouts funding a new development. The current Scout den was completed in 1984 and is now suffering from age, among other things the leaking roof and the lack of special needs facilities has provoked the group into a den development to deal with these issues. In the economic times we live in it is no longer possible for the group to get a loan and so to get the development up and running we decided to do our bit and replicate what Andy and Paul did a decade ago.

Fundraising was the hardest part

Fundraising was one of the most difficult parts

The fund raising was one of the most difficult parts of the lead up to the race, we knew that it was out of our reach to raise €20,000 in this economic climate along with the current scepticism over where charity money is going so we lowered our aim to €5,000. We came fairly close with huge support from the kayaking community and friends and family we got a final tally of €4,200. I feel it was worth the effort.

Running the DW as a diabetic

The Malahide scouts were not the only beneficiaries of our charity work, as a type 1 diabetic I was interested from the beginning in sharing any funds 50:50 between the scouts and Diabetes Ireland to give a little back to these organisations have done so much for me. In 2002 I spent a week in Temple Street children’s hospital after getting a diabetes diagnosis and had my first experience with Diabetes Ireland, they provided me with a load of information and help on how to get my life back to normal. One thing that has stuck with me till this day is a small quote one of the nursing staff said to me which was ‘all you have to do is to learn how to fit your diabetes around your life and not the other way around’.

6 months after the diagnosis the Scouts gave me my first challenge to fit my diabetes around my life and I spent 10 days paddling and rowing down the River Barrow, camping on the bank each night. It was a great way of getting me to manage my blood sugar and those ten days still stick out as a high point of my childhood. Since then I have had so many mad experiences with no major issues thanks to these two amazing organisations, I can’t see my life being half as fulfilling as it is if they hadn’t helped me along the way.

All the hiking, camping, water-sports and trips abroad I had growing up meant I had a good starting point to figure out how to look after myself on this epic race. I have met a lot of people who think of diabetes as an intolerance where I have to cut all sugar out of my diet or that I have to take on more sugar than normal but in reality it is a complicated balancing act between the two. As a type 1 diabetic my body cannot produce insulin so I must inject it, this is what causes the balancing act because I must match the insulin I take to the food I eat. To complicate matters the body’s sensitivity to insulin i.e. the amount of sugar let into cells per volume of insulin injected is increased by exercise, exercise therefore leads to low blood sugar.

It was no small matter ensuring blood sugars didn’t rise or fall too much, letting the sugars slip a little would slow us down a huge amount and letting them go a lot could be very dangerous. If I let my blood sugar levels rise too high then the lack of insulin in my system would mean my muscles would lose power and cramp up. Let it go the other way and things get much worse and the lack of glucose in my system would not only mean my muscles wouldn’t have fuel to power them but my brain would begin to starve and a potential hypoglycaemia could result in a trip in an ambulance or worse.

Managing blood sugar

Managing blood sugar

As a way of figuring out how to control my sugar levels I treated every training session since we started in September as an experiment, checking my blood sugar levels before getting in the boat, adjusting the rate of insulin I was receiving or changing the food I was taking on board and after the session seeing the affect it had had on the levels. It worked in the end as I checked my blood every 5 of the 125 mile race and I only had 2 measurements that were slightly too high, the rest were perfect. The addition of my diabetes to the challenge just adds to this amazing feeling of accomplishment. In fact I believe my attention to sugar levels was what kept me going strong right to the end.

Training plan / Rocky Montage

Anyway that’s enough about diabetes, we had plenty of time to experiment with everything in training. Our fitness training began 8 months before the race in September but really we started preparing for the race after Easter 2013 so it was a full year to get us where we needed to be. This time last year neither of us had been near the true marathon racing boat whose narrow shape designed for speed make them notoriously difficult to keep upright. We spent the summer before working on our balance in two single K1 racing kayaks that were kindly lent to us by Canoeing Ireland’s marathon committee.

When September finally came around we were comfortable enough in the K1s to decided it was time to get in the tandem K2 kayak. A friend and fellow scout Brian Nolan was kind enough to lend us his K2 and we started heading out in the dark after work for an 8 mile stretch on the Malahide estuary Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings. We kept this up till December when exams took precedence and we took a month off for Christmas.

After New Year’s we started back up, the race seemed so much closer, so with that bit of pressure we really started ramping up the distances. We went from 10 to 16 mile sessions, then up to 20 milers and at this point we had our first experience of hitting the wall. 18 miles in with no food and reduced insulin we both ran out of energy and those last two miles were brutal.

Getting in the swing of things

Getting in the swing of things

This session prompted us to sort out a drinking system so we could take on high carb drinks while paddling and we also started training with our support crew who followed us down the canals to feed us at locks as they would be in the race. On the 16th of February we finished our first 32 mile stretch between the little town of Rhode back up the Grand Canal into Celbridge, with a cruising speed of about 6 miles an hour it took us 5 hours and 20 minutes to get under the bridge outside Celbridge paddlers club we had nicknamed mini Westminster. We came to know that route very well over the next few months!


After that session we set out a new schedule for the lead up to the race, Tuesday evenings we would bring the boat down to the broadmedows estuary in Malahide and paddle a four mile course as fast as we could, we came close to emptying our stomachs on a few of these. Thursday evenings we got the boat up to the Grand Canal out in Celbridge and spent a few hours paddling between 16 and 20 miles and the weeks training was finally finished off on Sunday with the Rhode to Celbridge paddle.

We had our last training session 9 days before the race and with that we felt ready for the start line. The DW is a funny race because you are trying to finish faster than the other boats in your class but everybody has to figure out their finishing time before they start. The final 18 miles of the race is tidal and at high tide the sea flows back up the river till it reaches the Teddington lock. After 107 miles you would be in no state to paddle against the tide so to complete the race you must make it to Teddington sometime between half an hour before and three and a half hours after high tide. In order to catch the fastest flow after the tide we worked out that we needed to leave Devizes at 11:00 aiming to be under Westminster bridge at half 9 the next day.

Starting the race

After all the stress making sure we were ready for everything we were more than happy when we finally got to jump in the boat and get going. It was a lovely sunny day and even with a headwind we decided on starting off wearing just our base layer thermals and caps and leave the kags and hats for later. This worked very well for the first few miles but as Tiarnán was taking the wind on his chest and the drips that flicked off my paddles started to cool him down fairly quick so the support crew got his kag on fairly early on.

Starting line

Starting line

We were paddling a fair rate faster than the crews around us and even though we were pulling in more often than most for food we were still flying past everyone around us. This was great for the moral as we saw crews off in the distance and watched them getting closer till we overtook them and spotted the next crew to catch.

To balance the calories being burned we had our high carb supplement drink that was 4 parts simple carbohydrate to 1 part protein with the idea that the carbohydrate would fuel the bodies and the protein would be sacrificial to prevent the body breaking itself down when things got tough. To add to the drink and keep our stomachs in reasonable shape we took on solid food and carbohydrate gels every 5 miles along the course with three larger meals to give us something to look forward to.

In the weeks coming up to the race we had been suffering from lots of little injuries like tight hamstrings, sore shoulders and lower back pain which were all repetitive strain injuries. I had been really worried about the first 15 miles of the race known as ‘the plod’ because there are no locks to get out and portage (run) around and in training I hadn’t managed to stay in the boat that long without a lot of pain and numbness in my legs. Luckily we had put aside a week off training before the race to carb load, eating as much as we could, and this seemed to do did the trick, at the start line we were in great shape without any niggling pains and got through the plod without a problem.

Tactics: planning and running around locks

We had done a lot of training getting in and out of the boat at locks, there are 77 portages along the course so we knew this was an area that could save or lose us a lot of time, if you can get your portaging a minute faster you can knock an hour and 17 minutes of the race. We worked out that we could save more time on some of the locks that were closer together by putting the boat up on the shoulders and running along the tow path instead of stopping to get back on and off the canal. The longest stretch we had planned on running was a one mile section that had 7 locks but on the day one of our support crew was running ahead of us and managed to get us to run an extra half mile. He reckoned the sections first few sections after we planned to get back on were just as short as the one we had skipped. That run nearly killed me but we were 8 minutes ahead of schedule, the sun was still shining and the energy drink soon got me back on form so we paddled on.

The only hitch for the rest of the day was an overestimation by me on how far we had paddled, that meant we were about 15 miles further back along the course, this was a big psychological blow but we were still ahead of schedule so we kept going with the promise of a battered sausage and chip and dry thermals in Reading. About an hour after the sun went down we finally made it. The run in was a bit surreal as we moved from the canal onto the river Kennet which passed through the middle of a shopping district. Some drunk Englishmen came out to cheer us on before we moved back into the darkness as the Kennet joins the Thames, we pulled in at the mandatory checkpoint to get our chipper and dry thermals which was heaven.

Paddling through the dark

We were in great spirits leaving Reading but we knew the night time would be the most difficult period and we weren’t wrong. The first issue that night-time on the Thames brought was navigation, you would think it would be hard to get lost in a river but the Thames is full of Islands and you can take major long cuts going the wrong way round. Then you had to find the portage points at locks for the mega weirs that roared off in the darkness. We managed keep on the right route by following the boats ahead of us, each paddler had to have a glow stick attached to their buoyancy aid and a lot of boats had red lights on the back. When looking off into the darkness to choose a direction we could usually see a single red or blue pixel on this black screen in front of us that kept getting bigger until we caught it and moved onto the next pixel.

Pulled over in the dark

Pulled over in the dark

Tiarnán had put a huge amount of effort into predicting our progress along the route, factoring in everything from flow rates and the effects of fatigue, to the time taken for toliet breaks. He created a spread sheet that had a prediction of when we would reach each point. We were within a few minutes of this for most of the race until we reached the portages around the monster locks of the Thames. There was only small specific areas you could get out and back in again and as we were getting closer to Teddington the number of racers around us increased. All this lead to big queues at each exit point and get on, each time we got back on we were told how far behind schedule we had fallen. The queues at least gave a bit of a break but the worst thing about those locks was that we couldn’t jump straight back in the boat and get fed on the water as there wasn’t enough bank space for people to get around us, this meant we had to eat and drink standing on the bank in the cold wind.

Struggling with the cold (and The Pot Noodle Incident)

Dealing with the cold was the toughest night time experience with temperature drop and slow portaging, Tiarnán took the brunt of this as he was paddling in the front and had the wind on his chest, by 3 in the morning he was fairly hypothermic. I could feel it in his paddle stroke and it was a struggle to keep him talking. We told the support crew we needed hot chocolate or soup at the next lock but the car at that lock didn’t have any and so had bought pot noodles in a petrol station, instead of the delicious chocolate drink we were handed a pot noodle. For me this was a bit of a let-down, my stomach was already a little queasy and forcing down a pot of processed chemicals wasn’t something to enjoy but for Tiarnán this was a complete disaster. They make him sick and can’t eat them in normal circumstances so in the state he was in forcing it into him was out of the question, he left it I told the lads he needed a fleece and hot chocolate ready for him at the next lock.

This was the lowest point of the night, I couldn’t get Tiarnán talking at all and the pace had dropped dramatically. We struggled to the next point but we did make it, finally getting Tiarnán the clothing and hot drink he needed and when we got back on it was like he was starting off at the beginning again, with warmth back in his body he tore off and after a while I had to tell him to relax the pace as I couldn’t keep up.

We had always known that if we could make it to sunrise on time we would be through the worst of it and our chances of dropping out on the rest would be slim to none, when we saw the black sky getting brighter our spirits rose with it, the cloud covering that morning meant we never saw an exact sunrise but I have never been so happy to look up and be able to make out clouds in daylight.

Paddling out of the dark again

Paddling out of the dark again

When we got to Teddington it felt like a finish line in itself, despite the queues at the locks we had made it only half an hour behind our predicted time. Even with a terribly upset stomach I was feeling great. I was warm, the body was a lot better than I thought it would be at that point and we were about to get onto the tidal section and looking forward to letting the water do the rest of the work. Unfortunately 18 miles is still a very long way to paddle and the flow wasn’t the waterslide we were hoping it would be so the emotional roller-coaster went for one last plunge before the finish.

The river at that point is about 200 meters wide and with the strongest flow in the centre getting to the bank took ages and getting out of the flow slowed us down a lot. To make the most of the moving water we only pulled in once on the final stretch. At this stop 12 miles from the finish line I filled myself with unwanted food eating as much as I could and filled my bottle with the carb drink, with that we pulled back out into the flow and put the head down to get ourselves over the line.

Crisis on the home stretch

We had read a number of blogs about the race over the past year and the majority of them described the paddle into London as almost enjoyable, you are in a terrible state but the excitement of reaching the finish line would give you the energy you needed. Unfortunately 3 miles from Westminster I was not enjoying things at all; the weather reflected my feelings, a miserable grey sky lighting up the muddy banks and cold glass buildings. My feelings were a result of exhaustion, our paddling style which had been so good up to this point was going to the dogs and most importantly myself and Tiarnán had gone quiet. The lack of talking meant all I had left to think about was how far we had to go and what hurt.

Miserable grey weather

Miserable grey weather

When we were exactly a mile from the bridge the style got steadily worse and I was feeling less stable in the boat when suddenly Tiarnán started talking about having to pull in, he wasn’t making too much sense but he managed to tell me that he needed the emergency rations in the back of the boat. He was suffering from low blood sugar. His body wasn’t producing that much insulin but he had been burning so much glucose over the race that skipping the food breaks on the last 10 miles had caused him to burn through the last of the glucose in his system and his brain was beginning to starve.

We pulled in to the bank and I jumped out into the mud. I grabbed the bottle of Lucozade and a load of chocolate, trying to keep the Thames water off them and got them up to him. After getting most of the Lucozade in his mouth he munched into the chocolate and we took a minute to let the sugar kick in. As I put the rations away I noticed we were sitting across from MI6, the British secret service building, I didn’t know much about the geography of London but if the James Bond movies were anything to go by I knew Westminster wasn’t far off. As we paddled back into the centre of the river we went round a bend and there in front of us was the Bridge.

Crossing the finish line

Crossing the finish line

With the glucose back in his system Tiarnán was getting back to normal, we wanted to finish with style so we sprinted down the last few hundred meters to the line. With Westminster Abbey on our left, the London Eye in front and our support crew among a hundred others cheering, we passed under the bridge and we finished on the biggest high I can remember. We were helped out of the boat by a group of race marshals and brought up the steps at the top of which two finishing medals were hung around our necks.

Finished! Feeling wrecked, but great

Finished! Feeling wrecked, but great

It was a surreal feeling getting that medal, I was emotionally drained from all we had gone through but the joy of finishing after the whole year of training and planning managed to keep me smiling. All that had gone into that race and here we were, finally standing on the bank beside Westminster Bridge as Big Ben tolled ten. I had expected to be in pieces but I guess I was over tired because the body felt fine. After we got the photos and basked in the achievement we got changed, got in the cars and I found I was too sore to fall asleep. We made it back to our accommodation in Reading, crashed out for a couple of hours and then we could finally talk through all the things that had happened over the past 24 hours.

Post race analysis

Tiarnán and I were a great pairing, he is an exceptionally bright guy and his attention to detail meant we didn’t come up against anything on the day without a plan on how to deal with it. I on the other had am a bit of an optimist and those of you who know me know organisation isn’t my strong suit. There is no way I could have planned that race as well as we did. That said I’d like to think my optimism pulled us through some of the rougher parts of the night.

We couldn’t have hoped for a better support crew and it was special to involve both our dads in this race. The support crew was made up of the two old men Brian Byrne and Ivan Barrett, Tiarnán’s brother Brian and the only non-relation our good friend Paul Purcell. They lead us across the English countryside, fed us and got us anything we needed along the way. They also kept our moods up and with Paul in charge of our Facebook page everybody at home knew how we were getting on. During the night and into the morning I was as grumpy as I have ever been and yet they gave us almost nothing to complain about (bar the Pot Noodle incident). I know support crew is no easy task but I think they enjoyed it and all seemed delighted to share in this experience.

Brilliant support crew

Brilliant support crew

Thinking back on it now, the race was very tough mentally and physically but I could probably get myself to do the event itself again. The thing that has me cringing at the thought of a second attempt and saying never again was all the preparation and the year of training. It was depressing the number of times my friends were heading out mountain biking, white-water kayaking or simply to the pub and we had to decline their offer and spend a few hours in freezing rain. While they enjoyed themselves we were cracking through ice patches on the canals, dealing with aggressive swans and all the repetitive strain injuries. That’s not to say I regret anything, if we had to pull out of the race and hadn’t finish we have both agreed we would be sourcing gear and planning our training for DW 2015. Owning a finishing medal is something I am very proud of and I love the interest everyone has shown, it’s just I now have a one I would rather not go through it all again for a second.

I would like to finish by wishing good luck to anyone else thinking about giving the race a go and if you are looking for support crew I am interested to see what that side of the race is like.

Alan Barrett

DW training

Chairperson and Treasurer Elected at SGM

The TDU Special General Meeting was held tonight (20th of May at 20:00).

Patrick McCormack was elected as Chairperson and Neal Kelly was elected as Treasurer.

Congratulations and best of luck to Paddy and Neal in their roles for the rest of the year.

If you would like to get involved in the TDU committee or write something for the TDU blog don’t hesitate to get in touch on

St. Michael’s Youth Project: Crossing the Irish Sea

The first time I heard about St. Michael’s Youth Project and their kayaking program was a few weeks ago when the TDU newsletter came out. The second time was when a Facebook post about gear that was taken from their centre in Inchicore went viral on irish kayaking groups and pages. What I didn’t know is that the group was just weeks away from a planned expedition to paddle across the Irish Sea between Scotland and Ireland to raise money for the youth project. On Monday the 12th of May I sat in on a planning session to find out how plans for this ambitious expedition came about and how preparations for the expedition are coming along.


Benny, Niamh, Dean, Dan (Rawat) and Dan (O’Brien) discussing logistics – photo by Maryanne Doyle

St. Michael’s Parish Youth Project

St. Michael’s Youth Project (SMPYP) was founded in 1986 in response to the drugs epidemic in areas of Dublin at that time. The community-based project was funded by the government since its inception to work with young people aged 10-21 in disadvantaged areas through recreational, educational and developmental programs. This initiative was funded by the caring communities
grant, through the Community Foundation Ireland to address the issue of youth unemployment. CDYSB and the Canals drug task force also supported various aspects of the training. In the last three years funding for the project has been severely cut and the current program budget is next to non-existent, resulting in salary cuts to the staff and a threat to the ability of the project to continue this work.


Find out more about St. Michael’s on their website

Introducing kayaking to SMPYP

In late 2013 SMPYP put out a call for new activities to include in the program and application they chose came from Canoeing Ireland’s Development Officer Benny Cullen. A partnership between SMPYP and Canoeing Ireland has been ongoing ever since, with the aim of training young people and equipping them with skills to engage with kayaking as a sport, a passion, a way to give back to their community as instructors and perhaps a way to start a career in the outdoor industry.

In the carpark getting ready for a river trip

In the carpark getting ready for a river trip – photo by Benny Cullen

Let the training begin…

Training began in October 2013 as the group began to learn the basics of level one and two kayaking skills from the Canoeing Ireland syllabus. As the year went on the group participated in a series of river trips and training sessions and have progressed to learning level three kayaking skills and training as level one instructors. The SMPYP centre had seven kayaks and fifteen buoyancy aids, helmets, paddles and wetsuits and once the trainee instructors qualify at the end of their training SMPYP will be able to put these resources to use and teach kayaking to younger members of the SMPYP community.

Getting to grips with moving water on a river trip - photo by Dan Rawat

Getting to grips with moving water on a river trip – photo by Dan Rawat

An unexpected set back

On the 15th of April as the group were preparing to take to the water for training they opened the door of the gear room and found that a hole had been made in the wall and most of the smaller pieces of gear including wetsuits, buoyancy aids, wetsuit booties and helmets were missing. The initial reaction of the youth project community was shared on their Facebook page soon after:


Next the instructor working with the group that day wrote a Facebook post describing the missing gear and posted it to “Canoes and Kayaks for Sale Ireland” the primary group for the sale of second hand kayaking gear in Ireland.

Announcement of stolen gear

Facebook post by John Pierce, an instructor who was working with the group the day the theft was covered.

Next the post went viral as it was shared a staggering 135 times across individual profiles, groups and pages of kayaking clubs and organisations across the country including the national governing body Canoeing Ireland and the Training and Development Unit’s pages. There was a hugely positive response at local and national levels and a lot of support was expressed.

St. Michael’s Youth Project respond to the wave of support the day after the theft.

Was any of the gear recovered?

One buoyancy aid was discovered floating in the canal in perfect working order. In total five wetsuits and four BAs were recovered with the help of the Gardaí, with the rest of the gear remaining missing. SMPYP are working with young people in the project and the wider community and are hopeful that more of the gear might be recovered.

Deciding to paddle across the Irish Sea

The loss of gear was an unfortunate setback and gave another reason to raise funds: to replace some of the gear and give the kayaking project a better chance of success. The young men who have been training in kayaking since October have been involved in St. Michael’s since they were nine or ten years old, so the project means a lot to them. Over the last few years as the budget has been severely reduced they’ve seen firsthand the need for fundraising to help the project continue to offer the support it does in the community.  The idea to kayak across the Irish Sea (between Scotland and Ireland) came about one training session, initially this idea was met with disbelief, but before long it was a challenge that the group took on as their own as a way to raise funds to help the project.

Group shot on the bank

Group shot on the bank – photo by Benny Cullen

Preparing for the trip

The distance between Port Patrick on the Scottish coast and Belfast is 34km (21mi), or 19 nautical miles and the expedition is predicted to take between seven and ten hours to complete. The team at present includes Dean Dunne, Lee, O’Brien, Daniel O’Brien, Terence Waldron, Daniel McNulty, Shane O’Connor and Niamh Smith as well as Daniel Rawat and Benny Cullen who will guide the trip. The current plan is to make the trip on Tuesday the 27th of May to avail of an ebbing tide which will aid in the journey but this may change depending on weather forecasts. Two of the team, are involved in a local wrestling gym and have arranged weekly gym sessions for strength and endurance training for the group to prepare for the trip. The group are working out the logistics of transporting the team and their gear to Belfast and are looking for a volunteer bus driver to help.

Planning session

Terence, Dan and Lee discuss logistics – photo by Maryanne Doyle

What can I do?

The project’s fundraising page will be open and accepting donations until mid June, if you can spare an amount of any size to help please do. Donations of kayaking gear are also welcome, especially junior sizes, as the centre is currently understocked to provide kayaking for local children over the summer. Share this article with anyone you think might be interested in the story or able to donate to help get the project back under full steam.

Teaching the next generation of SMPYP kayakers

Teaching the next generation of SMPYP kayakers – photo by Dan Rawat

Article written by Maryanne Doyle, Training and Development Unit PRO and Clubs Officer

Devizes to Westminster: Couch to Canoe

Part two of the series on the Devizes to Westminster race, this article was written by Dale Rothwell from Tullow Kayak Club who entered the race with his fellow club member Dermot Walsh supported by a crew of seven all from Tullow Kayak Club. Dermot and Dale had no background in marathon kayaking and devised a unique training plan involved kayaking, running, boxing, swimming and cycling 110km on a tandem bike they made from spare parts. Read on to find out all about it…

The Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race is the world’s longest non-stop canoeing challenge. It involves paddling 125 miles, portaging 77 locks and staying awake and motivated for over 24 hours. Added to this is the pressure of having to arrive at Teddington Lock within the tidal window: miss the out-going tide and you won’t be allowed through for safety reasons meaning you are forced to retire with only 18 miles left to go. As of Easter weekend 2014 I am the proud owner of a DW Finisher’s Medal. But the DW is only a small part of my story…

It all started for me in 2010. I was on the Derreen river with some of the Tullow Kayak Club members running the “GORGE” : a small rapid usually well within my ability but that day I struggled and swam. I knew I was unfit, overweight and out of practice. Over the next week I did some hard thinking and asked myself if was I going to become a couch potato Dad or was I going to do something about it? I decided to do something.

I started paddling flat water outside the club in a Dancer once a week after the kids were put to bed. Dermot Walsh, another club member, had not paddled recently due to work and family, and I convinced him to come help with some first timers from the club. In 2011 we both entered the Liffey Decent (18 miles). This was an eye-opener for me, waiting at the finish line as Dermot crossed after four hours, totally exhausted and going to sleep the second he got into the van.

“I mentioned the DW to Dermot, who laughed at me, but it stuck in the back of my mind.”

I continued with my solo training one day a week to maintain some paddle fitness as well as running occasionally. That Summer (2011), I went on a white water paddle to Scotland. I had been there before but this time I was out of my depth as I had not been practising enough. When I got home I started to paddle twice a week and after weeks of pestering, Dermot started training with me. We paddled the 2012 Liffey Decent in my Jackson Duo (slow white water kayak) in 3 hours 5 min; a personal best for Dermot who was also full of energy at the end! It was soon after this that I learned of the Devizes to Westminster race. I mentioned it to Dermot, who laughed at me, but it stuck in the back of my mind.

In the meantime Dermot had seen the benefits of the training and was a fitter, leaner man who was no longer out of breath when playing with his kids. Compliments from his friends and family only made him want to train more. Now we started to paddle 20km at night on the Slaney regardless of temperature, wind or rain; a new adventure every night.

Easter weekend 2013, I went to Scotland again and this time fitness was not an issue. The whole time I was thinking of the DW taking place a few hundred miles further south with mixed emotions. I was fitter now, but sitting on the river Etive in Scotland at midday with the temperature gauge reading 5 degrees, I knew conditions for the DW would not be much better. Also, even though we had been talking about doing the event for some time, Dermot had still not committed. Could we handle what DW could throw at us? And, would Dermot commit to the race?

On the way!

“You plan to sit in that for 24 hours?”

To get a feel for the race, Canoe Marathon Ireland kindly offered us a Peter Spence K2 kayak to have a go in. I remember looking at the kayak for the first time with Dermot’s American brother-in-law (a man of few words). His only comment was, “You plan to sit in that for 24 hours?”

Our first time in the K2 was a club night and when everyone had left we very cautiously put the kayak in the water and slowly stepped in. Away we went, wobbly at first, but ok. After two more nights at the club we felt confident enough to take on the Barrow river planning a trip from Leighlinbridge to Carlow and back. Not long after we started we both had cramped legs and feet but we kept going. The fun continued when we ran out of drinking water. We arrived in Carlow shortly after midnight where Dermot went to a chipper in full kayak gear and got some water, not to mention a few strange looks. It was on this night that Dermot coined the phrase “this is s**t, but it’s good craic” a phrase to be repeated many times during training. It was 2am by the time we arrived back at Leighlinbridge and we both had several missed calls from our wives. It was after this that Dermot made the commitment to train for the DW.

To keep things interesting we would vary our training. There was no science behind this, we just wanted to have fun. Running was great but hard on the body. We tried boxing, swimming and even cycled a 110km charity race on a tandem bicycle we made from second hand bits.

We were now regularly paddling long sections and we thought we would benefit from a lighter kayak. After a race in Celbridge we had the opportunity to try a full racing K2 and since we ending up swimming 7 times in 10 metres, it was obvious that we would have to paddle a slightly slower, more stable kayak. Luckily Thomastown Paddlers were selling some of their old stock and we found our boat.

Training continued into the winter, the cold only starting to become a problem on long paddles. We bought new hooded cags and this was solved. A bigger problem was lower back pain due to what we thought was a lean in the boat. We tried physio, pilates and even had new custom seats made, none of which seemed to solve the problem. It was on a training session with Morgan Cooper that some small issues with our paddle technique were pointed out to us. So with just 6 weeks left to go we were now trying to correct our paddle stroke. This advice did help immensely and it is here that I have to admit I was reluctant to seek help earlier despite the advice of our support crew chief Susan Doyle. I would advise anyone thinking of doing the DW: DON’T BE TOO PROUD TO ASK FOR HELP.

So after months of training on the canal at night, sometimes with our support crew (they could tell a few stories) reading maps, lock diagrams, tide times, compulsory kit, food and fluid plans we were ready to go. One kayak, two paddlers, seven support crew, fourteen crates of kit, two vehicles, a ferry ride, a four hour drive and the Tullow Kayak Club team had arrived in Devizes.


“The kayak’s shaking…”

We woke at 6.00am on the morning of the race, had a big breakfast, loaded the vehicles and headed down to the start. We had our pre-race photos and last minute checks and at last after months of work we were off at 8.05am Easter Saturday morning. Dermot remarked that the kayak was shaking but we both concluded that it was nerves. Sure enough, 30 minutes later it had stopped. 18 miles in the pound finished the first mile stone over.

Things were going well and the support team had a rhythm going, helping us to take in the estimated 20,000 calories we needed for the 24 hours and the 500ml of water per hour. Paddling through the 34 mile Newbury checkpoint we were in unknown territory as our training had never gone past the 36 mile mark. By now we had been made aware we had a large following of supporters via the live tracking webpage and social media updates from the support team and this gave us great encouragement.

“Paddling through a city was a surreal experience, and with people sitting outside pubs cheering you on, you felt it was a real adventure.”

As we passed the Cunning Man Pub, we knew Reading would not be far where the canal joined the river and a much desired flow. Paddling through a city was a surreal experience, and with people sitting outside pubs cheering you on, you felt this was a real adventure. At Dreadnought checkpoint (58miles), we had more food and a full gear change. It would be dark in the next 40 minutes and my legs and feet were beginning to get pins and needles. Back on the river I realised my legs had swollen and my pants were too tight. We would not meet the support for another hour and by then I was in quite a bit of pain. Once we met the team the pants change for now seemed to fix the problem.

On the way!

Total darkness now covered the meandering river. Occasionally we would see another kayak to our left or right and start paddling towards them only to realise they were paddling to us. By now our bodies were tired and our 22kg kayak felt like a 44kg kayak. The support crew tried to boost spirits by surprising us with fish and chips at 2.00am, but by now Dermot was in no mood for food and I only could eat a little.The support crew on the other hand did not waste the chips.

“Over the next three hours I hit my wall.”

Over the next three hours I hit my wall. A few times I drifted off, only to hear Dermot ask “Ok Dale?” I would wake up, momentarily think I was about to paddle into a hole before getting my bearings and replying with a short grunt, “Yes!” Our support crew had grown concerned for us and pulled us to the bank near a bridge to give us a very strong coffee at 4.30am. When the sun came up at 5.00am our body clocks thankfully kicked into gear and we turned a corner. Things seemed to improve and the finish line felt within reach.

Molesey lock was another mile stone as we had now paddled 100 miles and had been nonstop paddling for nearly 24 hours. With 5 miles to go to the all-important Teddington checkpoint, we knew we were going to make the tidal window. Our bodies were in remarkable shape considering what we had gone through but was now taking longer and longer to get back into the boat. I remember Dermot and I telling each other, “It is only five more miles! One more hour to Teddington!”

“Only 18 miles to go: a Liffey Decent!”

At Teddington Lock we had another gear change, a last application of anti inflammatory gel to the sore areas of the body and a quick body rub. With a kiss from our respective wives, off we went knowing we would not see the support crew until Westminster Bridge. We were in good spirits as we pushed away. “Only 18 miles to go: a Liffey Decent,” Dermot said to me laughing. I thought back to 2012 and how the Liffey Decent had taken its toll on Dermot and just how far the two of us had come.

“A swim at this stage could be disastrous.”

As we rounded the corner to Richmond Bridge the first barrier was down and second had started to drop. We sprinted for the last arch but 50 meters from the arch the lights came on. One more final portage would be required. Every mile felt like five as we were so tired but our spirits were good. As we made our way down the quays motor boats started to appear on the river. Crossing their wake head on was ok but then it would rebound off the walls and hit us square on the side. This was very un-nerving as a swim at this late stage could be disastrous.

Then I heard the welcome sound of Big Ben striking 12 o’clock and knew we couldn’t be far from the finish. As we rounded what seemed like a never ending series of bends Big Ben came into view first, followed soon after by Westminster Bridge and the realisation that we had made it. Dermot congratulated me and I replied, “It has been a great year!” We were helped out of our kayak and we climbed with up the steps to the quayside with shaky legs where we were presented with our finisher medals. It was hard to take it in. We had done it. 70 out of the 200 boats that started with us were not so lucky having to retire earlier in the race due to exhaustion. It was a surreal experience to stand there in the shadow of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and think about what we had achieved. While we sat in the car waiting to leave the event, despite being utterly exhausted, I started looking forward to our next adventure, because I had all already found something better than a DW finisher medal: the chance to go on a paddling adventure with a friend.

Support crew from Tullow Kayak Club


Part one:

Devizes to Westminster: Going Solo

This is the first instalment of a series of articles about irish kayakers who have competed in the Devizes to Westminster, a 201km canoe race held in the UK. This article was written by Olivia Murphy who has been involved in marathon paddling for over ten years and entered the race on her own. Read more about Olivia at the end of the article.

How did you find out about the race initially and what was your first impression of it?

I first came across the Devizes to Westminster (DW) Canoe Race approximately 10 years ago when my then fiancé (now husband and recent DW supporter) were handed a flyer at the 2003 Liffey Descent. Thinking we were up for it but erring on the side of caution we attended a Marsport DW seminar, purchased some new kit and attempted Waterside D (34 mile) in 2004. After four hours and 15 mile on the canal, we called it a day but were invited to volunteer at the event later on that year, and so began our association with the DW.

What made you decide to do it?

After two years of volunteering as rescue, we trained and supported a junior crew to participate in the event; and they completed it in approximately 25 hours staying onsite and feeding themselves after each day’s paddle. After a year off due to personal commitments, we returned to the event as marshals for the senior doubles and covered Marlow (2009 to 2011) and Bray (2012 and 2013) checkpoints. Our first year on Bray, our seven and a half month old assisted and received a medal for his contribution which we were later told “we had to earn”; and so in 2013, the gauntlet was thrown down and taken up. However the decision to paddle DW had been made way back in mid 2012.

Did you enter with a partner or on your own?

In making the decision to paddle, a number of other items required consideration. First things first “solo or double”, solo it was. Next “buy / beg / borrow / steal” a K1, borrow it was. Third, start training – canal paddles, and runs. And so the training began.

What sort of training did you do?

October to December 2012, short paddles (approx six mile twice monthly) to reacquaint myself with a K1. Two mile monthly increments every month from January 2013 in addition to racing Canoe Marthon Ireland’s domestic season from March to October 2013. 30 mile a month (in batches of 12 and 18 mile) from October 2013 to February 2014. 15 mile a month (in batches of 6 and 9 mile) in March and April 2014. 3k, 5k and the odd 10k run throughout the 18 months. Trained in all kinds of weather – hail, rain, snow, ice, sun, heavy winds, etc (tough times but well worth it) – and received all kinds of advice from friends, event organisers, previous and existing DW paddlers, etc. And then it was Easter; and the event began.
Photo by Rob Murphy Photography

Photo by Rob Murphy Photography

Were there any low points in the race?

After a two hour delay, day one (Good Friday) was a go – 34 mile to Newbury in 9h 16m with three swims (not bad, all things considered). Days two (36 mile) and three (38 mile), early starts and long days, but finished each day within the 10 hour window despite the loneliness (last five mile on Easter Saturday, last eight mile on Easter Sunday) and the poor weather (thunder, sheet lightning and rain) on Easter Sunday. Grit and determination got me through; and of course, the camaraderie on the water was great.

What kept you going when it got tough?

Paddlers egging you on – “well done K1, respect”; “well done K1, keep it going”; “well done K1, nearly there” – supporters (not even your own – special thanks to the Ralphettes) stuffing food in your mouth or helping you enter and exit the boat at higher portages; marshals, umpires and friends from the organising team having faith in you, cheering you on. And of course, the support from home was great – “Brilliant, keep it up, well done”, “Head up for the last leg”; “Wow, impressive. Well done. Massive achievement”; “Enjoy crossing the line at Westminster”! 28h 25m, 108 mile later and finally it was Easter Monday.
Photo by Rob Murphy Photography

Photo by Rob Murphy Photography

What was a high point in the race?

Mass start at 7.35am (another early start) at Teddington for the K1s followed by groups of 10 fastest junior K2s, vet / junior K2s and Endeavour classes. 2h 43m later and I’m done (thanks to Simon Avery for keeping me company on the way down) – final time at Westminster 31h 08m 33s, yippee… Time for food; catch up with paddlers met along the way; and friends from the organising team – hugs and kisses, slaps on the back, “knew you could do it girl”, all round – before the journey home.

Would you do it again?

Would I do it again? Yes but not as a single, maybe as a double…

What advice would you give for someone who was considering entering in the future?

Is it worth doing? Yes but give yourself time to train for it (12 months at least). It’s hard! Training wise:

  • Get your distance in but vary it! Take a look at for training plans, etc 
  • Attend a Marsport DW seminar. Check out to book your place
  • Talk to paddlers who have done the event before 
  • If you’re planning on doing the senior doubles class, train on the water during the day and at night
  • Cross train – as well as paddling; run, consider circuit training, etc 
  • Practise your portaging 
  • Train your support crew but pick a good one (leave younger kids at home). Have at least two cars supporting on each of the three long days (Day one – Devizes to Newbury; Day two – Newbury to Marlow; Day three – Marlow to Teddington) whether you’re paddling junior doubles, vet / junior doubles, endeavour or senior singles. Double the number of support cars for the senior doubles event. 
  • Have good kit and lots of spares (e.g. thermals, hats, cags, shoes, etc) – you do get wet 
  • Choose your boat, paddle, paddling partner (if doing doubles), and support crew carefully 
  • Bring the tunes, and
  • Paddle. Remember, finishing is the aim 

If you’re considering doing it, the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race 2015 takes place from the 3rd to 6th of April, so get training now… Contact me if you’re looking for some advice. Who knows, maybe I’ll see you on the water in the not too distant future…

Olivia Murphy

About the author:

Olivia Murphy started paddling with the scouts over 20 years ago before moving through St Kevin’s College and GMIT Castlebar to study outdoor education. Primarily a whitewater paddler to begin with she got into marathon about ten years ago and has taken part in events such as the Liffey Descent, Riba de Sella, Tay Descent, Ardeche, Cankayak and now the Devizes to Westminster.
She believes “it’s only fair that after getting so much out of the sport, you put something back in” and volunteers at kayaking events both abroad and locally (including the DW, Liffey Descent, Junior Paddlefest and Club Champs) as well as instructing at club level in Kilcullen and Tullamore Canoe clubs, Grand Canal Sports and Athy Rowing and Canoeing Club and holding a voluntary position on the Canoe Marathon Ireland Technical Committee.
Olivia represents Kilcullen Canoe Club in races and is now working in mainstream sports development.
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