A year ago tomorrow I teetered on the edge of a deep and dirty and dark river many thousands of miles from ‘ home’ and was moments away from a closure.
The proximity of children prevented my certain death that day, my feeling that it wasn’t fair on them.
A year later and my ‘canoe race obsession’ is in full flow. The ‘DW’ is many hours in, the hardcore paddlers this year really up against it in the awful weather. I was in this race 11 times, but only had really bad weather the once. It was my third time and my partner and I had trained very hard. I was probably 34 ( and really relatively new to canoeing ) and he was a fresh faced 22 year old, but with far more paddling behind him. I suppose we made an odd Combi really, me very physically strong and all muscle, him slight and all technique ( the mix of the 2 would’ve been world beating ).
In those days they had different rules from now. Teams could choose to start 12 hrs later and ‘catch the 2nd tide ‘. We started ‘ normally’ on the Saturday and the wind blew at gale force against us for 125 miles ( 20 hours dead to the finish line in London ). We were the fastest crew to finish, so in a sense had ‘ won ‘.
12 hours later 3 tactically thinking crews started their attempt. The sun had come out and the wind had blown out completely. All 3 of these smart crews beat our time ( not by that much, but the clock doesn’t care ) We therefore ‘finished’ 4th. This lad did it, like me, many times after, even winning it once with his awesome twin brother (5 times winner ).
Some years on and both our lives have gone a little bit awry. I am a paraplegic ( and not liking it at all ) he, having forged a highly successful law career… kinda out of nowhere other than his personality ( and he is great company ) finds himself in court facing a long jail sentence. He may well be guilty as charged, yet did not intend the outcome that his ‘alleged actions ‘ led to.
I look back to the times we had, when life was simple. We’d train at 5.30 am most days from January to mid March. We rarely paddled in the daylight. Neither of us ever wore anything other than shorts and we had an unspoken rule about never complaining. We were completely in competition with eachother over who was toughest, but never spoke about it. That winter was cold and the ice would form around our bare feet in the boat and over our hands so that we had to prise them off the paddles. Neither of us ever wore gloves.
Come the end of the 125 mile race, there are steps that most crews have to be carried up. I recall running up those steps, opposite Big Ben, that year, feeling as fresh as when I’d started 20 hours earlier. That was, of course, mind over matter, my body shutting down through exhaustion shortly after.
I wish that I could regain that mindset now. The difference is that then I felt like Superman. Now I feel the opposite.
A year after I almost ended it ( for the first time ) I think about it far, far more regularly. Whilst in America I had a purpose and something to finish that i’d committed to – like the DW race.
Now my ‘purpose’ is far less obvious to me, the challenge way more difficult than an extreme sports race. In that race you had to have a support crew – your ‘ family’ for the duration . No matter how tired, how irritable, how abusive you were to them through the race, through the mistakes , through the pain, through the fatigue, through the blisters, they stuck with you, not reacting to your race induced mood swings and irrational behaviour. They knew that without them the paddlers would not succeed, not beat the wind, the pain, the fatigue and the mental suffering, the voices telling you that stopping and giving up was far, far easier. They didn’t react to the shit that we gave them for making mistakes that slowed us down, by seconds not minutes… they sucked it up without showing emotion
The support crew arguably win the race for the racers… and they do get medals too ( if you win ) In my case as a rule it was just beer and flowers ( gender dependent ) and lifelong friendship.
I wish my former partner luck ( deserved or not ) I have of course messaged him, pretty much the only contact we now irregularly have.
And I do wish ( for us both ) that we could turn back the clock and do things diffently.