The start horn blasts, one definitive last time for those of us in wave one. The water comes alive immediately, stirred up by the rapidly whirling arms of the faster paddlers eager to see the last of the Murray River, this marathon at any rate.
From besides me, the kids from Baccus Marsh Grammar blasts from their familiar and welcome stereo the refrains of Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer, and it suddenly hits me. I’m actually going to finish this. 404km. Oh. My. God.
I let that sink in for a few seconds, savoring the sensation, the quickening of my heart beat and breath catching, the sweet, almost tangible taste of equal parts pride and relief before abruptly shaking myself out of it. I still have 77km to go, and every one of those kilometers will be hard fought, against wind and time.
It is day one, and the horn for wave two has just sounded. Already, we are rapidly seeing the backs of most paddlers, including the relay paddler on his long stand up paddle board. I am a bundle of nerves. Despite requests, we were placed in wave two of a 730am start, which set us back a half hour, the precious thirty minutes I’d calculated on needing in order to make the 530pm finish for this 93km paddle.
I have no idea if I can handle that distance anyway, but am determind to try, knowing that I would be very frustrated if those minutes were what caused me to miss the 3pm cutoff at checkpoint C. Still, I remind myself that I shouldould have trained harder, so that time would not have been an issue, so there isn’t anyone else to blame.
The marathon has just begun, but already I am wrestling with all these emotions. I look back – only one paddler lags behind us from the wave – but he rapidly gains up to the three of us, Bridget, Dani, and myself. He says hello, and leisurely slows down to our pace. He says we are doing well, no worries. It is Uncle Cary, a thirty year veteran of the event. He tells us back in his day, there were ten times the competitors on the water, more than 5000 strong, and every one of them going for the full distance. The optional relay format is a new thing, to encourage more paddlers to come out onto the river.
Uncle Cary has designated himself our guardian angel. He sticks with us the entire day. Why rush, he said, enjoy the experience. He keeps track of our pace, herding us to and from the checkpoints we gratefully stop at, to stretch out our muscles and get in a quick toilet break. He lets us wash ride him, tailing him closely in his wake to conserve energy, and fills the quiet with companionable chatter as we slog through the kilometers.
Against all odds, we beat the cutoff times. Our personal best distances melt away, before half the day is over. 35km, 40km, 50km. My shoulders are so tight, but we have made it. 93km. Woohoo! We have made it.
Having pushed myself on day one getting to 93km, I’m nervous again. Can I tack on another 94km this very next day? Dani decided early in the darkness of morning to sit this day out; she can’t lift her arm. Bridget’s shoulder is giving her similar concerns as well, but she decides to paddle the first leg with me. 24km. A distance we used to look upon as a full-on training session.
Despite her shoulder hurting, Bridget sets a good pace, and I can feel my muscles protesting to keep up. Thank goodness that we have managed to move to wave one, for those additional 30 minutes on the water. Thank goodness for Bridget’s company that first leg. I am sad when she leaves me at the first check point.
Vikki, who has been ahead in the paddle so far, decides to drop back to try to hang with me. She says her mind was getting to her paddling alone and wants some company. But she’s a faster paddler, and soon pulls ahead anyway, though staying where I can still see her, a much more tangible target to aim towards.
Dark ominous clouds now roll in, and thunder rumbles overhead. There are bolts of lightning in the distance. We have to make a choice – stay on the water or go under the trees. We opt for the former, and push on, as the first raindrops pelt down.
A half hour from the last check point, Uncle Cary catches up to us again, along with the support boat. We are the last paddlers on the water again, though Uncle Cary tells us this is because we are the survivors; the others have pulled out at the prior checkpoint.
We make comfortable time. I trail gratefully in his wake, and am happy when we beach at the finish line, a further 94km clocked off. Yay!
Day 3. The sun is out but the wind has picked up, bringing with it a chill that sends me shivering. I may be coming down with a cold, having nursed a sore throat the past couple of days.
78km to go today, and Bridget and Dani are back in the game, having carefully stretched and given their shoulders tender loving care the day before. Surprisingly, Vikki had to opt out this morning. She can’t lift her arm. Boo. Sometimes, deciding to sit out requires way more courage and strength than trying to fight through another full day of paddling. They have trained hard, and it is a bitter decision to have to make.
I struggle with the shivers all day, but the paddling isn’t bad. We make good time, and are able to relax and enjoy ourselves, chatting with the paddlers who pass us by. There’s Greg from Swan Hill, on his third marathon, paddling in support of his mate and raising money for men’s health. There’s Greg L from Tassie, who paddles without stopping at any of the checkpoints, as he is training for the Yukon 715km race next year, where competitors paddle through the night, only stopping for the mandatory 3 hour and 7 hour rest stops.
I also meet Darren, a firefighter from Melbourne who has come with his department of firefighters. Half of them are paddling solo, and the other half are doing it in relays. He says he is glad for the experience, but there is no way he’ll do this again. When I ask him on subsequent days, his answer doesn’t change.
I play leapfrog with Pete of boat #144, whose wife Pamela has made fast friends with Bridget’s mum as support crew. He says he will tell me on Saturday if he will do this again (he answers then in the affirmative, maybe with his wife in a relay).
It’s amazing how fast our bodies adapt to the workout. I finish the day with sore muscles, but don’t feel as stiff as on the first day, and feel confident that with stretching, I’ll feel ready to go again the next day.
Day 4 and all of us are back in the game and feeling strong. That’s a good thing, for we will need every ounce of energy today. Even though it is supposedly a short day – 62km – our approach to the weir means we don’t get the benefit of flow assist. Add to that, the winds have picked up, sending gusts of up to 45km/h for long stretches at a time.
Craziness. I’ve never paddled in such conditions before. The only silver lining is that we are on a river and not on open waters. A gust catches my wing blade paddle in midair and I almost roll over in my kayak. Hypothermia is a real risk today. We later learn that three people were treated for it, and two sent to the hospital.
The rain buckets down intermittently too. I’m having a most miserable time, and at checkpoint C, the prospect of paddling another 16km in such insane conditions is almost too much to bear. Pete of #144 bows out. I only keep going because I see a K4 pull out of the checkpoint and wobble determinedly down the river. These things look impossible to maneuver in such winds, and if they choose to persevere on, I have no excuse.
When I pass Darren the firefighter, he looks as woebegone as I feel. He is in a surf ski, completely exposed to the elements. He said that he’s had to just pull over and hold on to a tree a few times, because his speedometer was registering exactly 0km/h of forward movement in the headwinds.
When Dani and I finally pull into the finish line, we just feel relief to be able to get out of this weather. Bridget though said she had a really fun day on the water, even if she was caught up in a torrent of hail near the finish. Weirdo. Lol.
Day one seems like a lifetime ago, now that we are halfway through Day five. We’ve covered hundreds more kilometers than we ever thought we could. Happily, the sun is back out, although the winds are still kind of nuts and it is distinctly more chill than when we started off.
The girls are paddling from strength to strength, having found their stride. I lag behind a bit, but secure in the knowledge that I am still making good time. They are waiting for me around the bend after checkpoint C, so we can paddle the last 21km together. Home stretch!
Bridget has just feasted on chocolates and is on a sugar high, so she leads our excited crew on a medley of Disney songs.
Suddenly, my right foot pedal gives way. I must have been straining against it too much in the winds. It seems too much effort to try to pull over and fix it at this point, so I just resolve to steer with my paddle, relying on Bridget to paddle alongside to physically push my bow once in a while. With the strong side wind, I am having to constantly paddle just on my left side.
Jason, who has amazingly been ahead of us this entire marathon in his short plastic boat, is struggling with his shoulder today, and falls back to stick with us. Together, we inch towards the finish line. Our speed is slow but we are savouring our last minutes on the water.
Finally, we round the bend and can see our cheering support crew. We raft up as four, and as pump our fists in the air together while belting out the chorus of Ain’t No River Wide Enough. We did it!!!!!
I’m still getting off the high from the past week. My rose-tinted glasses fully perched on my nose now, the past week was just incredibly fun. 😀 I’ve met all sorts of paddlers – the legendary British couple who did the entire distance on stand up paddle boards (even more of an epic feat in the wind conditions that we had – which someone who has done the last thirty plus years of the marathon said was the worst he ever saw); the competition-hungry Dawsons on our bus who came in second and who have clocked 3500 km this year in paddling marathons alone and who will tackle a 24 hour paddle this very next week in Canberra; comedic Will and his hand painted Wilson ball mascot who provided hours of entertainment with his good natured cheer…
Would I do it again? Hell yeah. But in a double I reckon. Haha. They go so much faster that I don’t need to stress out about time. It’s more social too. I’m glad I made the distance, despite mostly training in an outrigger vs a kayak. I was slow, coming in 66 out of the 68 paddlers who completed all 404km. Nonetheless, I can take pride in knowing that this is out of 550 paddlers who have gone down the river this week. Most of them have chosen to do just part distances.
I feel good knowing that I have enough stamina and doggedness to keep plugging away even when the going seems tough. I’m glad for that confidence booster and know that it will help sustain me in future trials.
Photo credits – most aren’t mine, as it is inordinately difficult to remember these hings when I am fighting for precious minutes against the clock, but kindly taken by our ground support crew Linda and Pam