What does it feel like to kayak as quickly as you can for 125 miles while having to exit the water and carry your boat (portage) around a lock up to 77 times – through the night? I quizzed Alex Lane, GB kayaker, to find out how she fared in the annual Devizes to Westminster race – an endurance event so challenging it’s known as the canoeist’s ‘Everest’ – which she won with teammate, Dan Seaford.
Alex also shares insights into her training, fuelling and future marathon kayak plans.
When did you first start kayaking and how long you’ve been competing?
My kayaking journey didn’t truly start until 2013, so when I was 18. I’d been in plastic boats before, but not really trained in racing kayaks. I wanted to achieve something in my gap year, and so asked my dad to do the Devizes to Westminster 2014 race with me. After six months of training we achieved our goal of reaching Westminster, coming 53rd in a time of 24hrs and 20 minutes, and the race’s atmosphere had me hooked! It was a very steep learning curve coming to the sport so ‘late’ as most people I compete against could paddle before they walked.
I only started to compete in K1 (singles kayak) after a couple of years in the sport, and had my first international selection in June 2016 – the European marathon championships.
Can you explain the kind of distances you cover in a marathon race and what’s involved?
A marathon race is anywhere between 4 miles and 125 miles. A typical domestic marathon race varies on ability but is between 4 miles and 12 miles. Internationally, for women a marathon course is 26km with 6 portages, where you have to get out and run with your boat. The Devizes to Westminster race is 125-miles.
What kind of physical attributes are important to succeed at the top level in your sport?
For marathon kayaking, a key part truly is the endurance, but this has to be met with a level of explosiveness as often in a race there will be sprints, such as to get off of the line or into the best tactical position. The boats we paddle are very unstable – when I was learning to paddle a top boat I swam, a lot! – so core and stability are very important.
What does a typical week of training look like for you?
Training depends on the time of year. During the winter, it will be more gym-focused with long, 30+km paddles at the weekends, I also like to mix it up and play a bit of hockey. During the summer, I paddle and run about 10-12 times a week. I do have a bad habit of overtraining and not taking a rest day!
How much time do you spend training on the water and what kind of sessions do you do?
This varies depending on what event I’m training for, but it’s around 8 hours a week. Sessions are a mixture of speed work, such as sprints of 300m x 10 for example, and threshold training – for example, 3 minutes work, 2 minutes rest x 12 – and long paddles of 20+km.
My biggest area of weakness is definitely sprint, so I need to work more on this area, but I don’t enjoy these sessions as much!
How important is strength training in your schedule and what kind of sessions you do?
Strength training happens over the winter, in three blocks: Hypertrophy, which is 12 reps x 6 sets for six exercises; strength, such as 3 reps x 5 sets for four exercises; and power, like 6 reps x 6 sets, very explosive. I try to keep a strength-endurance session in there every week, no matter what block I am in.
In the summer I just do bodyweight exercises and core, but these sessions are only for 30 minutes or so and I will do them as a circuit/HIIT-type workout.
The D-W race is often called the canoeist’s Everest. Can you tell me about the race and what it involves?
Where to start – once you have completed one, it becomes very addictive, simply because of its atmosphere and the people who support it and complete the race. It is a very mental race – I often say it is 40% physical and 60% mental.
The race was set up in a pub back in 1948 and occurs annually on the Easter weekend. There are two ways to complete the DW: over four days, or non-stop overnight, although only senior doubles may do this. It starts in Devizes, Wiltshire and follows the Kennet and Avon canal through Newbury down to Reading where it joins the river Thames. The race then takes you through Henley, Windsor and into central London. During the race there are 77 portages where you have to get out of your boat and run around the locks.
None of this would be possible without a support crew who meet you at different locks so they can feed you, give you drinks and new kit when needed.
You’ve previously won the women’s race. Going into this year’s event did you have any expectation of taking a podium spot?
Objective number one was to finish, and my advice to anyone who attempts the race is forget positioning and times – primarily it has to be about getting to the finish! But yes – we were out to win the mixed race, and if that meant a podium too, then great!
How do you fuel a 125-mile race? And is it tricky to eat while you paddle?
I stick to normal foods – pizza, filled pasta, potatoes, brownie, flapjack, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! It needs to be food you want to eat and look forward to. I actually had tummy problems from about 8 miles into the race, and where I’d planned to drink Lucozade sport, had to stay on water and avoid anything which may upset my stomach further – so only one gel and no Red Bull or fruit for me which is what I’ve had in previous years. I was very conscious that I didn’t want to crash or ‘bonk’ because of lack of calories, so I ate a lot; it was a case of how much could I fit in my mouth in one go. Five filled pasta and a millionaire shortbread I think was the record.
Were there any moments you found particularly tough during this year’s race?
Having stomach problems so early on made hydration hard as I didn’t really want to drink. Additionally, our swim at about 4am wasn’t exactly a highlight either! But there was never a point I thought we wouldn’t or couldn’t make it.
By the end of the race how were you feeling physically and mentally? Any blisters?
When we arrived, I was elated. But had you asked me two hours before, I was exhausted, I could barely lift my arms and was relying on rotation to pull the paddles through the water. Once we had finished and changed, I was promptly sick and suffered from D&V for 24 hours – it is definitely the worst I have felt after this race!
As for blisters, I think I had one!
When you experience tough moments during a race do you have any mental strategies that you use to get you through?
I segment the race – so, Newbury, Reading, Marlow, Old Windsor, Teddington and Westminster.
During training and the race itself, I always thought about Westminster Bridge, and that feeling of completion. What you have to remember is that if you give up, the relief is very temporary, but to complete the race, you have that feeling and stories forever.
What are your favourite items of kit for training and competing?
I love my Craft base layer – it’s pink, doesn’t have a high neck and is very breathable, making it great for when the weather can’t make its mind up as to whether it will be a cold or warm day. During all my winter training and the Devizes Westminster race, I had a great cag made by Palm which I absolutely swear by. It keeps you just the right temperature and is a nice ladies fit.
Ultimately, I like all of my kit to be make me feel good and to be comfy, and I am always chopping and changing between brands and styles.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
What’s next on the horizon for you this year in terms of competing?
I actually have a half and full marathon planned for this summer – running is the sport which I find I can switch my mind off to. I also have the domestic kayak races and nationals. Ultimately sport is about enjoyment, and I am just getting out on the water and working hard!
You can follow Alex on social media via www.instagram.com/alexandra_2216.