OP Tom Fuller (08-15) competed in the 125-mile Devizes to Westminster (DW) canoe race in April 2017. The gruelling race took Tom and his team mate 25 hours, 24 minutes and one second exactly of non-stop paddling through the night! The pair finished an impressive 64th out of 200 boats after only six months of training.
The race which starts in Devizes, Wiltshire, and finishes opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, has been held annually over the Easter Weekend since 1948. It is a severe test of skill, physical and mental stamina and planning which produces a memorable sense of achievement for those successfully completing it.
Tom, who is a first-year Systems Engineering student at Loughborough University and a cadet in the University Officers’ Training Corp (UOTC), explains how he came to be involved in the race: “A friend of mine a few years above in the UOTC tried it (DW) last year but had to retire as his partner got hypothermia 85 miles in. This year my friend was asked by our Commanding Officer to oversee the selection and training of a team to enter this year’s race and he asked me to be one of the paddlers.”
Tom’s partner for the race was Harry Dixon, a student at Nottingham University and a fellow officer cadet at Tom’s unit. Together they embarked on an intensive training regime to prepare themselves for the challenge ahead.
Tom explains: “Our training regime was fairly tough. Initially we had to spend a lot of time just getting used to sitting in the boat. As it is a race canoe it is very unstable, so I spent a fair few nights in October falling into the Trent in the dark before I properly found my balance. Once we were able to do longer distances we trained two or three times a week and paddled about eight or so miles each time. Additionally, we entered four races leading up to the DW called the Waterside Series. Each race in the series got progressively longer in length to build up our distance. The week before DW, Harry and I spent some time with the Royal Engineers Canoe Club. They were familiar with the race and the course, so they were able to show us some of the more complex bits of the river we would be paddling.”
With their training done, race day was soon upon them. Compared with the storm-ravaged weather of the previous year, the conditions were relatively mild for the race, but that did not detract from the enormity of it.
Tom recounts his experience of the race: “The race itself was the single hardest thing I have ever done in my life. We set off at 10:15am on Saturday morning; start times varied for each boat depending on when they thought they would finish. We had a nice chat with BBC’s Steve Backshaw and Olympic rower Helen Glover while we paddled along before they overtook us at around 20 miles in. At 50 miles in it began to get dark, so we made our scheduled stop and changed clothes and had hot food. After about 65 miles my entire upper body ached. After about 90 miles I began to grow very tired and weary and it was a massive slog to the finish. There were certain things throughout the race that boosted mine and Harry’s morale such as the change of clothes at 50 miles in and then the return of daylight at about 95 miles in.
“We had a support crew of two vehicles and seven people who leap-frogged each other to meet us at portages; these are points along the course where we had to get out of the boat and run with it to get past loch gates etc. The support team fed us and changed our water while we were on the move. We ate flapjacks and cocktail sausages and mini pizzas as well as sports gels and energy bars. We were also given a few jelly snakes to help keep us motivated and happy!
“During the night time we had a small light on the front and the back of the boat as well as a head torch each so we could see where we were going but on the wide river these were only useful on other boats so we could see which way the river went next by following them. Also coming through Reading and some of the small towns where there was some illumination helped us to see where we were going and keep on course.
The feeling of elation, relief, fatigue and sheer delight at finishing the race was immense for Tom. The sheer physical and mental exhaustion of competing in such a gruelling event continued for days afterwards as he gradually recovered. As well as a huge sense of achievement, Tom was also pleased to find out that they finished 64th out of 200 starting boats (of which only 120 boats finished!) in their Senior Doubles category.
He said, “As well as finishing 64th overall, we also managed to come 14th out of 28 army teams that entered. After the race we were congratulated by our Commanding Officer and members of our unit as well as receiving a congratulatory message from the Head of the Officer Cadets at Sandhurst who was impressed with our efforts.”
As for future plans, Tom is hoping to go on to select and train next year’s team and support them through the challenge.
To enter or for further details about the DW race, please visit the following website: www.dwrace.org.uk.