Words: Siri Schubert
Pics: Stefan Munsch/fotomotion.ch
Siri Schubert provides an in depth reports and stage by account of her 2017 SUP 11 City Tour.
As soon as we left the town of Heeg with its narrow canals and flat bottom sailboats, the wind seemed to get even stronger. Now, we faced a lake that seemed at least 3 kilometre long and 25-knot headwinds would not make the crossing easier. I was shivering. The rain had soaked my clothes. My muscles were cramping and would not cooperate. It didn’t help that I had just gotten over a cold and my throat and my body still ached.
I was paddling on the first day of the SUP 11 City Tour in Friesland, a stage race that follows the route of the famous ice-skating race, the Elfstedentocht, in the Netherlands. Like its model, the SUP 11 City Tour passes through 11 historic Frisian cities, with Sloten being the smallest. Usually. But this year was different. Gale-force winds had messed up the plans and the first stage was cancelled due to security concerns. On the second day, the organizers had changed the route and instead of paddling to Sloten, the 100-plus participants were directed from Leeuwarden to Workum where the start of the next stage was to take place. This meant paddling 50 kilometers and crossing a string of lakes in strong headwinds.
Before short 15-minute mandatory lunch break, I was in third position with a seemingly safe margin. The two leaders in the women’s competition, Lena Ribeiro and Petronella van Malsen, had started a lot faster than me and had secured a solid lead. And while I was struggling with the wind and the cold, Marta Abrunedo had gained ground. She overtook me right before the lake and paddled away. What an amazing performance. I felt like I was standing still. Doubts crept in. Would I be able to finish?
This year had been hard for me. I started out with high ambitions for the season after placing third in the 11 City Tour in 2016 but was forced to reconsider when, in February, a large but luckily benign cell growth had been discovered in my abdomen. I needed surgery and at first, everything seemed to go well. I was home after a four-day hospital and started recovering.
But my left ureter had been damaged during the operation. This was, according to the doctors, a rare complication. Which may explain why it took them more than two weeks to diagnose the problem and start with the correct treatment.
In the meantime, I was in extreme pain, on strong medication and back in the hospital. It took almost three months, several additional surgeries, bouts of high fever, several courses of intravenous antibiotics and a lot of mental strength to get back on the road to recovery.
When I finally started paddling again, I thought the season was over for me. I felt so weak and had lost so much muscle that I could only paddle a 4-kilometer route before I needed to stop and take a serious nap. I was told I would likely have to undergo one more surgery in the summer, which didn’t brighten my perspective.
Still, as soon as I got the doctors’ ok, I started training. Being out on the water brings me a unique kind of joy and I missed paddling more than anything. In early June, the good news came: No more surgeries were necessary. I celebrated with a 15-kilometre paddle. My energy came back. My strength followed.
I knew it was crazy but I decided to paddle the Molokai2Oahu race in Hawaii. My 2016 time had secured me a place on the starting list as a pre-qualified athlete and I just wanted to go. I was so happy to be out in the ocean again, training with friends, and getting energized by the wind and waves. I got fitter and decided if I could paddle the M2O, I could give the SUP 11 City race another try.
One evening in Hawaii, I was on Skype with my partner Stefan. He was out on the balcony and I noticed my new Aqua Inc. Super Sonic Extreme race board behind him. “Why is my board on the balcony?” I asked. “Oh, I am just lowering the deck,” he said and closed in on the board with his smart phone camera. I almost had a heart attack. Stefan had cut the board open and the foam was visible. I couldn’t believe he had done this without discussing it with me. “What in the world are you doing?” Stefan could hear that I was upset. “It will be fine, don’t worry”, he assured me. In his mind, we had discussed it. I my mind, he had just mentioned that it may be a good idea to lower the deck. I knew he had built kayaks and boards before, the first one when he was only 14 years old, and generally knows what he is doing but I was still upset.
When I returned from Hawaii, I saw that my worries had been unfounded. The lowered deck worked really well and I liked my narrow and fast Aqua Inc. Super Sonic Extreme even better.
The board worked great, even in the harsh conditions of the first stage of the 11 City Tour. And despite my doubts and struggles, I finally made it across the lake and into the city of Workum where I crossed the finish line after more than 7 hours. I was freezing, soaking wet and tired but still happy that I had made it. I came in in fourth place and my relatively slow time would make it hard to secure a podium position in the overall ranking. Still, I was inspired by the paddlers who had come in before me or were still arriving, which meant they had braved the harsh conditions even longer than me. There were so many great performances, not to mention the paddle rock stars who had finished all or parts of the non-stop SUP 11 City Tour and the organizers and volunteers who worked tirelessly to accommodate the athletes’ needs and deal with the inclement conditions.
The next day started much better. The sky had brightened and the occasional ray of sunshine broke through the clouds. I felt stronger than the day before and my cold symptoms had subsided. After about 30 kilometers, when we left the picturesque town of Harlingen with its sailboats and historic warehouses that gave testimony of the city’s past as a trading center, I was elated. The route took a sharp left turn into an industrial canal connecting Harlingen’s harbor with the cities of Franeker and Leeuwarden. The last two times I had paddled the 11 City Tour, the canal had been my least favorite part of the route. Compared to the smaller waterways that meander through meadows and charming small towns, around narrow turns and underneath low bridges, the canal with container ships and industrial loading stations seemed dreary. Yet this time was different. The wind was blowing from behind, forming tiny bumps on the water. I absolutely enjoyed myself and marveled at how well the shape of the board worked in mild downwind conditions. I almost forgot I was racing: that’s how much fun I had playing in the water. I reached the finish line in 3rd position behind Lena Ribeiro and Petronella van Malsen. Happy and tired.
On day four, I woke up nervous and excited. I knew I had to put in my best effort if I still wanted a chance to be among the top 3 women in the overall ranking. While I love the experience and believe that finishing the tour is an accomplishment in itself, my competitive side wanted to see whether I could make the podium. I had finished 3rd both in the 2016 and 2013 11 City Tour and hoped that the same ranking would be within my reach this time. My equipment was perfect: The board, the Super Sonic Extreme, had been jointly developed by my partner Stefan Munsch, Alexander Mettes from Aqua Inc., and me to fit my size and to work well in flatwater conditions that are prevalent in many European inland lakes and waterways. It had worked well in races in Switzerland and I knew that I could reach and sustain a good tempo on the board.
The starter’s pistol went off and the group of 18 women paddled toward a narrow bridge. My start didn’t go as planned. I was in the middle of a group of paddlers with no room to maneuver and had to stop abruptly to avoid crashing into the bridge pier. By the time I had cleared the obstacle, the first eight women had sprinted away. I spent the next kilometres playing catch-up. This was a familiar scenario. The last two days, my starts had also been less than perfect and I had to come back from behind. I paddled hard and caught the 2nd draft train after a few kilometres.
In long races like the 11 City Tour, drafting plays a big role. Paddling in someone’s slipstream saves huge amounts of energy and can help with a strong sprint at the finish. Yet after a while I felt the draft train was going too slow. I wanted to take the lead and set the pace. Marta Abrunedo followed me and together, we paddled hard for the next few kilometres.
We were approaching one of the most dreaded parts of the tour: The portage. While carrying the board around the weir is not a problem in itself, the more than 3 foot high concrete wall at the take-out point makes it a challenge and several boards have been bruised in the process. I know I needed to make a move if I wanted to be among the top 3 for the day. I ran across the grass at the side of the weir and was back on the water in no time. I was still in 3rd position for the day and felt strong.
I was more than surprised when I came around a bend in the canal and saw the two leaders about 100 meters in front of me. I had no idea they were so close. The sinuous route was lined with tall reeds blocking my view. I tried to catch up and connect to their draft train. Again and again. But Lena and Petronella managed to open up the gap each time I thought I was getting closer. By the time I reached the mandatory 15-minute lunch stop, they were 45 seconds ahead of me.
After a quick meal consisting of a candy bar and some vegetarian bouillon, I waited for the starter’s signal to go off for the second part of the stage. 3-2-1-go –and off I was. When I approached the next bridge, my partner Stefan Munsch and Aqua Inc.’s Alexander Mettes who had tirelessly encouraged me along the way were cheering loudly. I had caught up to the leaders and joined their draft train.
Now, I tried to push even harder and get in the lead but the two proved too strong. Meanwhile, the wind had picked up and was slowing us down. With only a few kilometers to go, Petronella started sprinting. I stayed behind her and together, we approached Dokkum, the town with the often photographed windmill next to the finish line. Then the sky opened up and it started pouring. The rain hit us so hard that it felt like paddling through a waterfall. There was a bolt of lightning and roaring thunder but luckily, it didn’t develop into a thunderstorm. Petronella proved stronger despite the adverse conditions and sprinted away. I was happy to come in second roughly a minute and a half behind her. Soaked and elated.
The last day was organized in a different format: A time trial. Based on our overall position, we started in reverse order in one-minute intervals. I was happy. No mass start, no close encounters with bridge piers. Just paddling. And after crossing between 40 and 50 kilometers for several days, the 27 kilometers of the final stage back to Leeuwarden seemed almost like a short distance. I paddled hard and overtook the four women who had started ahead of me within the first few kilometers. I had lots of energy and paddling felt smooth and relatively easy. I expected the leaders to overtake me at some point but was happy to remain in first position long as I could. I started passing some of the tour paddlers and master athletes who had started before me. That was fun. We exchanged encouragements, excited to have made it so far. Some of the male elite paddlers started to overtake me and it was great to see them paddle strong and steady. I was especially impressed by the fluid style of the male elite winners, the Hasulyo brothers Bruno and Daniel who made the long distances look like a leisurely stroll and with Bart de Zwart who had done the non-stop tour on the weekend before and was now leading the open men’s competition. With many other paddlers around me, time passed fast, even though it meant going in a zigzag course to comply with the no-drafting rule and stay 3 meters clear of anybody’s board.
I was especially excited when I heard cheers in Swiss German or French. This year, six paddlers from Switzerland had taken on the challenge and it was amazing to see the strong performances of the unofficial Swiss team. One of the factors that make the event special is the diversity of the paddlers. People from 30 nations participated from elite racers to more casual paddlers. Seeing old friends and making new ones is one element that has drawn me back to the 11 City Tour for the third time. Unfortunately, because of the rain, this year there weren’t as many opportunities as there had been in the previous year to hang out, talk story and to relax on comfy beanbag chairs after each stage.
I knew I was going strong when I approached a special place: The Elfsteden monument, also known as the tiles bridge. The blue and white bridge features a row of ice skaters, a classic scene from the original 11 City Tour that is only held when the natural ice along the entire course is at least 15 centimetres thick. The first Elfstedentocht was held on January 2nd 1909 and the last one took place on January 4th 1997. A closer look reveals that the image on the bridge is a mosaic of thousands of portraits of skaters who have finished the race. It was inspiring to paddle underneath the bridge and I felt an additional surge of energy.
Because of the rain, the finish line had been moved from its original place to a drier spot in Leeuwarden, which added a kilometer to the length of the last stage. Approaching the city, I started feeling exhausted. I summoned my strength because I wanted to finish strong but I was fading. The last few hundred meters seemed to go on forever. I was still in the lead but because of the staggered start, I was not sure of my actual position. Finally, I could hear music and cheers. Then I saw the finish line. I heard the voice of my partner Stefan. It felt so good. I crossed and was done, literally. I had never felt so tired and so content at the same time. Petronella crossed about a minute behind me, meaning that she had beaten me by a minute on the last stage. Marta Abrunedo came in third and Lena Ribeiro forth. In the overall ranking for the four days, Lena was still first, Petronella second, Marta third and I was fourth. We all had paddled hard and accomplished a lot as had everybody who came in before or after us. I couldn’t wait to get off the water to embrace my partner and congratulate all the old and new friends with whom I had taken this journey together. Unfortunately, we had to leave pretty soon after the awards ceremony to be back for our day jobs in Switzerland on Monday morning. It was a great adventure and I am sure this was not the last time I paddled the 11 City Tour.