Pushing through – Grand Union Canal SUP Challenge

Words: Phil Sayers
Pics: James Carnegie Photography

When an email lands on your desk on a Monday morning, asking you if you’d be interested in taking part in a brand new charity challenge in eight weeks time, which consists of paddling 100km in 24 hours, the reaction of most normal people would probably be along the lines of, ‘you’ve got to be joking’! That is of course unless your names are Phil and Stacey and you both have a sadistic streak for endurance challenges.

grand union canal sup challenge

London to Birmingham They had already discussed the potential of a fun, leisurely paddle along the Grand Union Canal with friends over a week in the summer. They were thinking how enjoyable it would be to explore the canal system from London to Birmingham with a group of friends and hire a canal boat where they could eat, sleep and relax after a leisurely day on the water. But to paddle half of the Grand Union canal in 24 hours, with no sleep; that was a whole different prospect.

The idea came from the Canal & Rivers Trust via Active360, which Phil is an instructor and co-director of. The trust was working with Action Challenge on a brand new charity event for walkers and runners to participate in: the Grand Union Challenge. They thought that having a few people paddling alongside the other participants ambling along the towpath of the Grand Union would be a ‘fun’ way of promoting our waterways and provide some good PR shots for the event; so in essence they were to be the entertainment for the day!

After a brief conversation (and before fully researching the route and realising that the paddle would also involve having to portage around 65 locks along the way), they decided they were up for the challenge.

The event, like many others of this type, was not only about the physical and mental challenge, but also about raising awareness and funds to support a number of charities. Both Phil and Stacey had participated in various charity events over the years, but this challenge was about to become a lot more personal.

The day after being allocated their places on the challenge, Stacey received the heartbreaking news that her mother-in-law had been diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer. Mary Smithson had spent her professional career working as a nurse and for the last 20 years she worked for Macmillan, caring for individuals and supporting the families of people suffering from cancer. Mary tragically passed away only 22 days after being diagnosed, a devastating blow to her family.

For many people this could have meant the beginning and the end of the challenge. But for Stacey, a proficient paddler and SUP instructor at Central SUP Nottingham, this tragic loss only made her more focused and determined, and that their chosen charity to fundraise for would be Macmillan Cancer Support.

Over the following weeks Phil and Stacey set about organising their logistics with the team from Action Challenge. Sorting the equipment required for day and night paddling, and devising an intensive training regime to prepare them physically for what was going to be their toughest SUP task to date.

Along the way they had a few paddlers from Active360 volunteer to join them on various stages of the route; Louise Nolan, Kiko Matthews, Rebecca Sales McKay, Anu and Marcus Niklassonl – some friendly faces to offer encouragement.

grand union canal sup challenge

Tushingham Sails
Stacey was supported by Tushingham Sails who loaned her a 2014 Red Paddle Co 14ft Elite board, while Phil opted to use his Red 12.6ft Race air board. Due to the number of locks that would have to be negotiated and ease of travel they decided inflatables would be the best option, fearing that the concrete canal sides would take their toll on more preferred carbon boards.

Before they knew it the big day had arrived and they found themselves in the middle of Paddington recreation ground, pumping up their boards surrounded by inquisitive charity walkers! The compere – actor Martin Hancock (better know for his role as Spider in Coronation Street) – was responsible for geeing up the walkers and getting them on their way in 30-minute intervals. Once Phil and Stacey had checked their equipment, filled water bladders and loaded board bags onto the transport lorry, they too were ready to get on their way and headed to the water…

The put in for SUP was the picturesque ‘Little Venice’, a short walk from the start point. Paddling was going to be tougher than the usual tidal Thames paddling that they are more accustomed to in London, as there is little to no flow on the canal, so every stroke had to count!

The forecast for the Saturday wasn’t ideal and they were blighted with heavy rain showers and moderate head winds for the first 50km. They decided to wear board shorts and their charity t-shirts to start with rather than trying to keep dry, hoping to keep some clothing damp free until later in the day when the rain was due to stop. Many of the challenge walkers asked if they had been swimming in the canal as they were wet through by the time they reached the 25km checkpoint.

In addition to the unfavourable weather, some sections of the canal were thick with weed and rubbish. Fortunately Stacey had taken her FCS race weed fin, which shed the gunk easily and made a huge difference to her board’s performance. Unfortunately Phil had opted for his FCS Danny Ching race fin, which on the clear sections was excellent – but wasn’t quite so helpful in heavily clogged areas.

grand union canal sup challenge

Apart from the rain, wind and weeds, they made good time for the first 25km from London to Hayes, completing it in just over four hours. It helped that there were no locks to negotiate on this section, allowing them to get into a good rhythm – taking it in turns to draught each other, helping preserve energy. The down side of this meant that there were still 65 locks ahead of them that would have to be negotiated in the remaining 75km.

Arriving at Hayes they were treated to a hot meal and were able to replenish water supplies and dry out in the checkpoint tent, but it was soon time to get back onto the water and tackle the next 25km section from Hayes to Watford. Paddling again was good, fewer weeds than the first section and the rain had begun to ease, but good fortune was soon halted when they began to encounter the first of the locks; 11 in total on this section.

Watford was the next main checkpoint and marked the half waypoint, which they reached at around 20:30. They enjoyed chicken and noodles along with numerous cups of tea before changing into dry clothes and mounting lights onto boards for the night paddle ahead. In addition they also had head torches to provide further illumination.

First of the 35 locks
As day faded, they made their way back to the water and set off towards Tring. No sooner had they started paddling, they were faced with the first of the 35 locks they would encounter in the next 25km. This section was by far the most physically and psychologically challenging of the entire trip. Paddling by itself for 100km is a relatively achievable challenge and certainly not the first time something of that distance had been attempted by stand up paddle boarders. Throw obstacles into the equation and you’ve got your work cut out.

It’s difficult to appreciate how much portaging can take out of you. Having to haul your board out of the water, carry it for up 500m at a time; the constant stopping and starting not only saps your energy but also dents your morale. Some of the locks were in quick succession, so no sooner had you got back onto the water and started to get into your stride, another would rapidly appear.

grand union canal sup challenge

They eventually reached Tring at 03:30 Sunday morning after being on the go for over 16 hours. The final 5km paddle to reach the checkpoint proved to be the hardest of all. The locks, sleep depravation, damp clothing from carrying wet boards and low energy levels found Phil and Stacey in a precarious situation. They were both showing signs of mild hypothermia and their bodies were going into shock. The next checkpoint couldn’t come soon enough.

As soon as they arrived in Tring, they quickly set about sorting themselves out. Once again a hearty hot meal was available, although a full English at four in the morning was probably not the perfect menu option, especially for Stacey who was feeling nauseous and so opted for dry bread, bananas and tea instead. Once they were wrapped up in extra layers of clothing and foil blankets supplied by the event paramedics, both paddlers slowly began to warm up and feel human again.

Final push
As dawn broke it was time for the final push to the finish. Only 25km and 19 locks stood between them and the end of their challenge. The initial going was hard. But with the warmth of the sun on their faces and the constant encouragement from the challenge walkers alongside them, soon the end was in sight.

Bletchley was the final destination and a small crowd of well-wishers including the friends and families of participants, event organisers and charity workers had gathered on top of a bridge to give them a rapturous reception. The last thing left to do was carry the boards up a bank to the official finish point where a glass of bubbly and food awaited.

The support they received from other participants was incredible. Despite the lack of sleep, blisters and aching limbs, the camaraderie among the walkers was amazing. Every individual and group willed each other to keep going to get to the finish line.

grand union canal sup challenge

Events like this are incredible to participate in. Not only do they test your personal resolve, but they also have a way of bringing out the very best in people. Sometimes it’s only when you’ve pushed yourself to what you think is your limit that you realise what you are truly capable of.

Rest in peace Mary x

Amount raised for Macmillan so far is £1,360.00

Just Giving fundraising page: https://www.justgiving.com/100KMGRANDUNIONSUP/


Canal & River Trust: http://www.canalrivertrust.org.uk
Active360: http://www.active360.co.uk
Grand Union Challenge: http://www.grandunionchallenge.com
Action Challenge: http://www.actionchallenge.com
Macmillan Cancer Support: http://www.macmillan.org.uk
More of James Carnegie’s photography can be found at: http://www.jamescarnegie.co.uk

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