Monday, 17 September 2018

Take me to the River - The Shakespeare Hospice Dragon Boat Race 2018

I was immediately thinking after the Great Shakespeare Ride, what next?  I love learning new skills, particularly sports which bring out my competitive side.  However, I equally love feeling that team spirit, which I used to enjoy in cross-country running as part of a club.  Sometimes setting your own goals and training hard towards these results can be a lonely pursuit and I was missing that feeling of camaraderie and a shared goal.

The Purple Pirates practicing in
the Hospice Garden, Captain Gary at the front!
The next Shakespeare Hospice fundraising event seemed to come at exactly the right time and so I signed my name on the list for the upcoming Dragon Boat Race as part of the hospice team, The Purple Pirates.  I enjoyed rowing when I was younger, and I often would wonder on one of my regular trips to the Scilly Isles if one day, I could be part of a gig team.  I love the idea of rowing in the open sea, although living nearer the sea would certainly help!  Dragon Boat racing is something I knew very little about, but according to the British Dragon Boat Association, Dragon Boat Racing is

"one of the most exciting and inclusive water sports as well as one of the fastest growing water sports that you can take part in world wide."

Our Captain and hospice Facilities Co-ordinator, Gary Pryor, organised a training session for us with Pershore Phoenix Dragon Boat Club over in Defford one evening after work. Four of us joined a team of 11 others, one at the helm and the rest crammed two by two along the 40ft vessel!  Had we not done a thorough warm-up, I may have cramped up immediately as I sat down on the left with my hip tight to the edge, and my left leg awkwardly bending around and extending and my right one bent and pushing back on a small ridge under my seat.  As we pushed off, I was trying to remember the three important instructions, my number (10), my buddy (11) and returning to the boat - this was in worst case scenario of capsizing! We had buoyancy aids as well so safety was well and truly covered!

The session flew by, and I learnt that key to the success of a dragon boat race is synchronized paddling.  The power comes from getting locked into the rhythm of the boat, with all oar hitting the water together.  Our tempo was controlled by the helmsman who moved up the tempo at one point to racing pace, almost 55 strokes a minute.  The propulsion and the energy in the boat was exhilarating! We were on the river for over an hour and I tried and lean as far forward as Tim (a member) did in front of me and mimic what he did although this became exhausting. It was hard to concentrate on keeping my lower arm straight and on more than a few occasions I miss the stroke and either accidentally punched Tim in the back or splashed Gary sitting on my right. After the final race pace effort where we are almost carried along by the Pershore crew, I think all the Purple Pirates are feeling weary and we certainly felt ready for the sandwiches, biscuits and tea back at the club house.

After such an amazing training night, I felt sad that Pershore was so far away as their team spirit and hospitality was enough to make me want to join up to the club!  I enjoyed chatting with the group about their different races and competitions and when I found out that a couple of members would be helping us out at the race, I was brimming over with confidence.

The Village People claim
their much deserved
best costume prize. 
Brooks the buccaneer
- with a very large parrot(!)
There was a total 26 teams on the day, representing big and small companies in the area as well as some more experienced rowers... and they were all looking good! Adorned in everything from corporate technical t-shirts, to sailor hats, stripey shirts, a(nother) pirate team (arrrrrrr!) and... The Village People. I quickly realize that my cheap, last minute pirate buccaneer costume from Stone the Crows would not hold up to the heavy demands of rowing a dragon boat and the zip had already bust from trying to wear it over a technical base-layer. Despite my strong competitive streak wanting to have a shot at the costume award, I  relinquished to the power of the full set of Village People (who did win), but I was still optimistic about our team spirit and embraced the fun of the day!

I kept remembering the training session advice that, the strongest looking guys don't necessarily get that steady momentum going to successfully push the boat into the lead.  We had some time to impart our knowledge of the training evening to the other Purple Pirates and we had a small training session from our more skilled crew members. We were really sad that our Captain, Gary was very poorly so couldn't make the race, but we quickly rallied round and recruited some extra crew members including a couple of our Young Ambassadors. I chatted to one of the Hospice at Home nurses who had been on-call during the night before and she had been called out in the early hours of that morning, so I couldn't help but feel total respect for her and that she was still helping our team!  Di, our hospice's diversional therapist had created purple bandannas for the team and adorned with various pirate props, we were in the zone!

The Shakespeare Hospice Purple Pirates, ready to row!
Our first race, in hindsight, was pretty impressive, given it was our first ever go as a new team.  The inexperienced crew quickly learnt the ropes and we stroked out away from the Boat House and the bank of the Avon, with buoyancy aids and oars gripped tightly.. having been instructed by not less than three different people at this stage exactly how to correctly hold the oar! We rowed confidently to the starting point on our very first voyage and it felt coordinated and strong!

We turned just after the RSC and waited the signal to race the 150m stretch back to the finish by the Boat House. It was all systems go after three strong strokes, then a rhythm of 1, 2... 1, 2.... as we shouted out the numbers along to the drum-beat of our young drummer, Henry seated at the prow.  However, the other boat was close.... very close, and the slightly out of sync drumming and timing shouts from the opposing team was disorienting.  Hands wet, feet wet, faces sploshed and arms aching we pushed and pushed to get ahead of the other we passed the roaring crowds on the riverside and the finish sign, it was unclear who had won but the other team had clinched the lead by one second!  Our time of 1 minute 22 seconds was certainly respectable, although some way off the leading team, 'Ship Happens' (great name) who had an amazing 1 minute and 9 seconds!

We had two more heats to go, although where all the other teams seemed to get faster, with the one exception of 'The Village People' who dipped in the second round (but then made a spectacular comeback in Heat 3).... our team seemed stuck in a gear as our next time was only a fraction of a second better than the first time!  The final race we were five seconds slower - as our desperation to finish on a high turned into sloppiness and our co-ordination melted as we saw the other team steam ahead!  We said our final 'hip hip hurray' to the winning team and waited to spectate the grand final!

What an amazing site this was... six dragon boats lined up to battle it out in a furious race to the finish.  There was no obvious team out of the six in the lead, and the dragons were almost neck to neck as they were cheered to the finish... but the results show really how close they were!  All six boats came in at one minute and 10 seconds.... separated by fractions of a second!

After much scrutiny of the finish line video, the winners were announced, the Twyver Tigers!  Everyone cheered this had been an incredible day and a spectacular final!  I would certainly recommend anyone should give Dragon Boat Racing a go - it was fantastic for team building and just really good fun! Keep an eye out for the date of next year's race.

If you enjoyed reading this blog and would like to donate via our sponsorship page, we would be really grateful.  It is here: The Purple Pirates Just Giving Page

Monday, 13 August 2018

Elevation - The Great Shakespeare Ride 100km

I started working for the Shakespeare Hospice in Spring 2018, and I really was sprung straight into supporting the Great Shakespeare Ride event. It really mattered to me a lot to promote the event as best I could, because I was learning about the amazing care and support the hospice provides, the sheer number of volunteers involved and how appreciated it is by patients and families going through really difficult times.  I wanted to get fully on board to do whatever I could, and especially to raise awareness of the meagre funding the hospice receives from the government. In fact, the contribution is 7%, the lowest in England, which is a reason that fundraising through events like the Shakespeare Ride is vital.

Chrissy and myself from our Summer Fete. 
Chrissy manages the Hospice at Home Team..
a dedicated group of qualified nurses and staff that run
a 24/7 service to support the families and patients.
I have huge admiration for Chrissy and her team.
It had been a tumultuous lead up to the race and the training had been testing.  A couple of weeks before the race, I'd cycled in close thunder and lightening and through heavy flooding in Ettington.  This resulted in a puncture right on Walton road where the Great Shakespeare ride would start!  After another puncture, I discovered my whole tyre needed changing.. and it really concerned me that it could happen again. When you run, you don't have to consider that grab some trainers and go!  A big cycle ride needs reliable equipment or bike mechanic skills!  I felt more confident once I was 'kitted out' by The Giant Store in Leamington with spare tubes, a pump and tools for worst case scenarios!  It was also reassuring that there would be mechanical support at the race.

August 12th arrived, with rain forecast all day following weeks of blazing sunshine.  Although the weather might put off some people, the car-park on the grounds at Walton Hall was certainly looking very busy, unsurprisingly given we had over 400 entrants for the event.  I had nightmares about my leading out the 100km ride in the rain and I thought I might fall down a pothole in the first few hundred yards, but thankfully it was better than I had imagined. The rain was light and I was able to take off my rain jacket to display my Shakespeare Hospice jersey, with my name embroidered on the top, especially for the lead-out.  Our CEO said some kind words of encouragement and we were off... although I was glad people were not far behind me and overtook me early on as I soon needed to pull over to put my wind-stopper back on as the rain was lashing down and I needed to rendezvous with Tim, to ride on together.

I knew the route was going to have some big hills and it was going to be the longest ride I'd ever done.  It was actually a lot more challenging than I had anticipated! The ride flowed out eastwards towards Pillerton Hersey and Kineton on lovely, quiet, traffic-free lanes.  This was quite familiar territory, only living five miles or so away from Walton Hall. We joined the B4086, before turning southwards towards Radway and more quiet lanes with glorious views, albeit slightly drizzly.  We were on the Tysoe Road and could see Edgehill ahead... we were heading for our first really testing climb, Lady Elizabeth Hill. There was a sign preparing us for the challenge that lay ahead...and my God it was steep!  I pushed and pushed and made it up to the top on my small chain ring and largest sprocket (lowest gear on my trusty Cube bike!) I was absolutely determined NOT to stop on any hills that this particularly gear was used multiple times!

My Strava says it all - Elevation!
We carried on to Winderton and a couple of big decents that tested my breaks in the rain! There was another climb up through Aylesmore and up Castle Hill to Upper Brailes.  There appeared to be a number of 'odd' looking folk around.. but realised there was a town festival with human sized scarecrows scattered around!  One I had seen wearing a high viz had really confused me as a motionless marshal...maybe I needed a gel, so out on Holloway Hill, I fuelled up on a rhubarb and custard Torq.  Even this could not have prepared me for the next challenge... the Sibfords!  Sibford Gower and Sibford Ferris, which are separated by Burdrop. On Strava, this is affectionately called, 'Burdrop's Big Balls Bombhole' (read that carefully). This was simply ridiculous... I was so close to swearing having switched gears at warp speed from dropping down and holding on the breaks for dear life, to quickly pushing up an epically steep hill, as a small boy on a push-along bike looked on I managed to turn my rudeness around to a 'Well done' to him!'

We headed on towards Hook Norton, which was very surreal as I had raced in Hook Norton, along the same road in blazing sunshine the previous Sunday!  There was huge relief in the form of a very impressive food stop, manned by the WI at Hook Norton village hall.  It was lovely to take the weight off, check the tyres, guzzle down flapjack and exchange glances of kudos from other weary and hungry cyclists...all grateful for a pit-stop!

Out of Hooky to Rollright... and another testing hill where I regretted all the sandwiches and cake I had just guzzled. My digestive powers were strong though.. and despite some hammy burps, I pushed on and was relieved by another steep decent into Little Compton before another steep climb and another drop into Barton-on-the-Heath.  This was a roller coaster of a ride...up again to Wolford, a big dip and then another climb to Todenham.  My legs were on fire...but felt stronger and stronger somehow. Another steep hill up to the A429, where another friendly marshal saw us safely across to continue up to Paxford.  More climbing afoot at Ebrington was interrupted by another well-earned food station and cup of tea. At this point, the 100 mile leaders were starting to arrive and I was in awe that they had survived almost 90 miles already. There were only 17 miles left!

Another post-nosh climb and then more climbing.. and a bit more... then the best decent of the day on Nebsworth Lane down to Ilmington (big drop on the elevation image to the 50 mile point) and a very familiar view to the left from many a Tempo Ilmington series race!  The decent went on and on...  and it was a quiet, traffic free road which allowed the brakes to come off and the shoulders to relax. Out to Wimpstone and then Alderminster, where there was more climbing up the New Road, although nothing like the previous climbs.  Heading on to Loxley and to Wellesbourne where the race was nearly over, I was so grateful to have made it without skidding on a steep decent on road debris, with tyres and tubes intact and not lost somewhere deep in the Cotswolds. Walton Hall was getting closer and my legs still worked... somehow!

My personalised jersey and medal - just above the medal I received
in 2012, on the GSR 40km first ride event.
As the music from the Tempo finish arch greeted me along with cheers from colleagues in the Fundraising Team. I slumped on my handlebars and happily made my way to the post-event massage area.  My shoulders were really aching but a fantastic sports massage student from Worcester Uni, sorted me out. I felt accomplished, exhausted, proud and thankful to have been on such a Great ride, with amazing support...what an experience!

It is always difficult to know what to do next when you feel you have accomplished something so mighty.. any ideas or suggestions welcome?

Oh and you can still donate money to my Just Giving Page which is here - Ros and Jayne's Page