I realised that as sea paddlers, we have an ingrained sense of keeping something in reserve on a challenging paddle. We recognise that the most dangerous part of any committing day on the water invariably comes at the end, the surf landing, the tough rescue of a fatigued paddler, the early arrival of an adverse wind that doubles your effort at the moment you are most tired.
I also know that in a race or competitive endeavour, anything left in reserve is something you could have thrown at your objective or opponent in pursuit of victory. Footy coach Wayne Bennett famously tells his players, 'don't die with the music in you'...
I took this as something of a theme for my attempt at the Hawkesbury Classic, and spent the race trying to identify just how hard I could go and when, in order to reach my target time of 11 hours. The competition was me of course, and the stopwatch.
My training told me that I could manage 9kmh for an extended period over varying tidal flows without blowing out. I was in a boat that, while not the specialised flat water speed machine I could see lining the banks at the start, was still capable of a maintaining a good clip. I had a good idea from some long expedition days in loaded boats of how to fuel myself & prevent dehydration. What I didn't know was just how hard and how far I could push myself over such an extended period when I didn't have to keep a physical margin of safety.
Suffice to say I can now say I reckon I know where that point is!
The Classic itself is a wonderful event. The atmosphere from the time you pull into Macquarie Park at Windsor is supremely optimistic, everyone seems to be helping everyone else with a smile. No sooner had I pulled up in the car park with my Mum & now four-time land crew, Suzanne, then Owen Walton & Col Sheringham appeared and offered to run me through scrutineering.
The briefing outlined the hazards and protocols to observe over the 111km course, and then the competitors in all their colour advanced on the marshalling gates for the staggered start.
First off are the Brooklyn or Busters, the non-competitive assortment of craft that goes away first to take full advantage of the favourable tides running out for the next three hours. In many ways this is the jewel of the Classic, with everything from Canadian canoes to slalom boats to polo bats to skin-on-frame kayaks. I spotted Batman & Robin in full kit on a double ski, a proud Englishman resplendent in dual Union Jack flagged headwear, mingled among the more serious and the other wacky racers.
The thing about this race though is that it's not possible to have a laugh all the way down, it's just too bloody far. At some point on the journey you'll have a bad hour (or four). At some point in the race you're going to be hurting.
My own start was at 16:45 with the SREC and MREC boats, and we had about two hours thereabouts to try to make ground with a favourable tide.
The start....I planned to hold 10kmh through this initial period, but managed to go a bit better than that as I weaved through the serpentine river course. It nearly came undone at the first checkpoint where I thought I could keep paddling while taking a suck on a goo, and had to throw in a high brace to prevent a dunking. Two hands right...?
My strategy proved a bit hopeful, crank through the first 30km before the tide turned, then hook in behind a slightly faster boat and try and minimise the wear & tear by wash riding through the opposing tide. That was a complete failure, I blew through the slower crews from the first round of paddlers, the quicker guys in front of me were too far in front to catch, and when the likes of Bob Turner & Kristy Benjamin whistled past in their SLR2 I could only stay with them long enough to complain!
At one stage an OC7 loomed up beside me with a wake like the QE2, and I gleefully saw my ticket through the tide, but they were going about 0.2kmh slower than I was going on my own so I had a short rest in behind them and had to mournfully get back to breaking trail. They were a bunch of characters, but guys, a little less conversation, a little more action and I could have listened to your banter for another hour!
The welcoming lights of Wiseman's Ferry loomed after 6:45, which was about 10 minutes slower than I had planned. I stopped to change my drink bladder, slip on my light paddling jacket, pop a couple of Ibuprofens and then set off again after a total of 5 minutes (Thanks Bill!) If there was an Ayrton Senna award for pit stops I'd have to have been in the mix.
Wiseman'sI had 42km thereabouts to the finish and four hours flat to get there, but importantly the tide had turned and I was starting to get above 10kmh. I clawed back from an average of 8.6kmh at Wiseman's to 8.7, 8.8, 8.9, 9.0, then 9.1 and had half a chance of breaking 11 hours with 10km to go. I also had some of the speedy dudes starting to appear from behind in skis and one by one I'd drift in behind them and foot it for two or three minutes in their wash before they shot off into the darkness.
I knew the tide had turned for the second time but hadn't felt it's influence when I turned the corner at Spencer and entered the last wide expanse of the river. That was the point my luck ran out as the brutal final tide started to run and I dropped from running a kilometre every five & a half minutes, to one every 8 minutes. Bugger.
The last 10km were pretty rugged, ripping and tearing at my catch trying to keep the average speed above the magic 9kmh, but eventually to no avail. I crawled the last two K's at 7kmh and crossed the line.
Mum had wangled into the 'officials only' zone and was singing out as I rounded the last mark, and it was over. My evil bastard GPS read 8.97kmh average speed, crueler than the Don! Final time was 11:08.
I'm pleased to say that for the first time on a long paddle I didn't have anything left at the end. The music had definitely died! Thirty of the last forty kilometres felt fast and exhilarating, and I was operating there or thereabouts to my interval levels in training, so that must have some benefit! The sting in the tail was rather character building.
There were plenty of cheery friends faces at the finish, both Rae Duffy and Annie Moore had smashed the previous women's MREC50 mark with Rae turning on a blistering 10:58. After some dedicated training her husband Neil had done a tough 11:46. My Hacking mate Steve Dawson & his better half Kate carried on a successful marathon series with 10:15. Mark Hempel, a Tuesday night regular and paddler for less than a year did an amazing 10.40. I tried in vain to hang onto Mark's wash as he shot past in the last 10km but couldn't foot it, really a brilliant achievement.
My heroic MumA sincere thanks to everyone that sponsored my race. My mum Suzanne went a sleepless night to give me a quick hug at Wiseman's and drive me home at the end, always with her big smile and optimism. And congratulations to everyone who gave the race a crack. It's a long, long way and something you always look back on with some small degree of pride. My flat water sojourn is over, time to head back into the sea....!
There are a few more pics on our Facebook page HERE