How Lena Kraus came 2nd in the 125 mile Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race.
Precision Hydration has a strong connection with the world of paddling. Our own Jonny Tye is a double Junior World Marathon Silver medalist. Designer Dave Blow has completed the Avon Descent Downriver K1 race in Perth, Australia as well as the epic 125 mile Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race twice, most recently with his brother, PH Founder Andy Blow in 2015. A number of Olympians paddled with PH keeping them hydrated in Rio.
So, we were delighted when Andy Parritt, a longstanding member of the PH paddling community, told us that he'd convinced German canoeist Lena Kraus to use our stuff at this year's DW and that she'd finished 2nd. We chatted with her before she jumped in the van to drive back to Germany...
Congrats on a fantastic result at the DW! Talk us through your race...
Thank you very much! The Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race is a 125 mile paddle happening every Easter on the Kennet and Avon Canal and the Thames. In a K2 (a kayak with two people in it), you can do the whole course in one go, which means timing your start right to catch the high tide at Teddington and paddling down the last bit of the course with the outgoing tide. That involves paddling all night from Saturday to Sunday!
In a K1 (a single kayak), you have to do the race in four stages, which are 34, 35, 38 and 18 miles each. I competed in the stage race this year, same as in 2012, which means I got to camp and actually sleep in between the stages, but also had to get going again each day, aching all over after a hard race the day before.
DW is a race you have to prepare well for! Apart from the training that you have to put in, there's some compulsory kit you have to carry in your boat (spare clothes, a survival bag, “300ml of emergency drinking fluid and 200g solid chocolate or Kendal Mint Cake”). The night before the race, you get to sleep in the Corn Exchange in Devizes, which is always a very nice opportunity to meet up with other paddlers, and then you turn up for a kit check on Friday morning at the wharf.
Umpires check your boat, buoyancy aid and emergency kit, you get your race number and a tracker, which will allow anybody to check your current position on the DW website (in case you go missing, or - more likely - your friends and family want to follow your race!)
Once you get the all clear, all that’s left to do is to start paddling. The first bit of the course is “the Pound”, a 14 mile paddle without any portages to Wooton Rivers. The challenge there is to get out of your boat, take the spray-deck off and run around the lock as fast as possible. Usually your legs don't work all that well after 14 miles of paddling! It's also the first point where I got some very welcome support, my Dad, who had come over all the way from Germany, feeding me some banana and flapjack in what was his DW-Debut.
Day one has a total of 35 portages (where you have to get out and carry your boat), at some of which you'll meet your support crew and be fed. I was lucky to have Andy Parritt, a paddler from my club, cycle alongside me on the towpath next to the canal, providing support and basically shouting me down the course. That helped me to stay below six hours for the first day.
Day one is hard, because you know you still have the whole race in front of you, it has lots of portages, you paddle on the canal (which means there is next to no flow) and it can get quite monotonous because you've done it all already in the Waterside series (a series of marathon races leading up to DW). One of the highlights is Bruce Tunnel, 502 yards long, through which you normally get a fairly easy run, but sometimes it’s rather difficult.
I was lucky at DW and had no problems whatsoever. At the last of the Waterside races, however, I was stopped because a canal boat was coming through the other way, then had to go through in a fleet of about 20 boats, which resulted in very bumpy conditions in the tunnel, in the pitch black, because it was quite a cloudy day! A K2 capsized in front of me which means I had to slow down and stop while they were rescued, lost orientation and almost paddled into one of the walls! (It didn’t help that there was a dead rat floating about at the entrance either...)
The last bit of Day One really dragged, I was struggling to keep up my speed of 6.5 miles per hour, my right shoulder had started hurting and whenever I thought it was almost over, there was another portage. The grass at the finish line at Newbury looked very green!
Day Two started with a fair bit of excitement because I very nearly missed my start, but a little jog to the start line got me there just in time. It was much colder than on Day One, with a nasty side-wind that I started to feel quite early on in the race, panicking slightly when I could no longer feel my toes! I had dressed exactly the same as for Day One, which had been a mistake. Luckily, I could relay a message through Andy (who was on his bike again) to my dad, so that not too long after, I had a hat on my head and got a warm cup of tea halfway through the day, which made me feel stronger again.
Day Two is the day you get from the canal onto the river Thames, which generally went fine, although I did get stuck in the mud at one of the portages. With much less flow on the river than expected, I didn’t manage to stay below six hours on that day and completed it at 6:20.
The start on Day Three was the most painful one so far. I got through it because I knew that the faster I paddled, the faster I would have worked through the pain. Day Three had been my strongest day in 2012, and was again this year. The biggest challenge on that day was a very annoying yacht-captain, who thought it would be funny to speed up and slow down again and again next to me, producing very uneven and steep waves that made it quite hard to navigate that part of the canal!
I had to pull over for an energy gel on the last stretch, because the yacht had been blocking my way to the pontoon my dad was waiting on with my race food. I could tell that I was about to get to a really long point, and if I did, there was no way I could crack the magical six hour mark that day. I crossed the finish line at 5:53, more exhausted than on the first two days, and quite emotional with the relief of having reached my goal.
Day Four is the final stretch to Westminster Bridge, all the way down from Teddington Lock on the tidal section of the Thames. Rather than getting a start window, you get a mass start. The forty fastest K1s were due for their kit-check at 6:10, in order to allow everybody to start in time to catch the outgoing tide that morning.
Conditions being as they were (windy, which makes for choppy water and big waves on the Tideway), I decided to wear two spraydecks. The trick in a mass start is, first of all, not to fall in, and second, to stick with people roughly your speed, preferably faster, so that you can paddle along on each other’s washes (the equivalent of being in someone’s wake at a cycle race).
I got a really good start and managed to stick with a pack I could just about keep up with. I can’t be sure, but I think that was the hardest part of the race, because to be quite honest, the paddlers I was with were too fast for me. But I kept telling myself that this was my last chance to influence my total time, and to just hang on for as long as I could!
It worked for the first half of the Tideway, after which it got very choppy. Fowey River Canoe Club trains in the tidal estuary of the River Fowey, which is why I’m quite used to rough conditions. The paddlers I had been with until that point struggled with the waves more than I did, so that I left them behind and was the first woman to cross the finish line that day, which was quite a special experience. I had already been a little emotional when I finally spotted the London Eye, but paddling onto the final stretch with the cheers of the crowd in my ears and Westminster Bridge finally in sight, I couldn’t stop grinning, and I admit, I cried a little, too.
How did you get started in the sport? Do you compete in any other sports?
Originally, I was a slalom paddler, which drives everybody who tries to coach me in marathon kayaking up the wall! The techniques are very different, and having a slalom technique ingrained into me from the age of fourteen didn't exactly make me a naturally good marathon paddler...
My obsession with kayaking started even earlier, though, when as a child I found an old surfboard that someone wanted to send off to the tip, asked if I could have it, made a paddle from a stick and started braving the “rapids” on a tiny little creek near where I lived.
Since then I’ll basically do anything paddle-powered on the water. I had never been in a racing K1 until 2012, when I moved to Cornwall for work experience. After a racing career in Slalom (in Germany) that hadn’t been as successful as I’d wished for, I had sworn to never paddle a single race again and was looking for a club to go and paddle with just for fun. I found Fowey River Canoe Club and ended up competing in the Waterside Series, Sprint and Hasler races, then the Devizes to Westminster!
I'd never thought I’d enjoy flat-water paddling, but I ended up addicted to the DW. I had to go back to Germany to finish my studies, but as soon as I was free I came back to train with Fowey and “do DW” again.
Our coach, Brian Greenaway, has done DW countless times himself. He's even written a book about it, so I couldn’t wish for a better coach. I still enjoy slalom and white water races, run the occasional half-marathon (preferably on trails) and had a very brief spell of playing volleyball competitively (just because I had to pass an exam in it at uni) and trampolining. I’m about to do a roller-skates-marathon next week, because a friend was involved in organising it...
What does a typical training week look like for you in the months before a key race?
Basically, I will train session on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, doing interval training mostly (like 8 x 3 minutes alternating with four minutes of paddling with a one minute break, four times 45 seconds on, 15 seconds off, then a one minute rest, times 12 and so on).
I find it very helpful to train in a group and with a coach who knows what they’re doing. That means I can just focus on the paddling and enjoy being on the water with my friends. It's always good to throw in some longer paddles to focus on technique as well. The lead-up to DW is structured quite well by the Waterside Series, which comprises four races increasing in length and happening at two-week intervals leading up to DW, ideal preparation. I usually go for a swim on Mondays, which after a race helps loosen up my muscles again.
What's your day job? How do you balance that with paddling?
I've been very lucky to find work as a literary translator, which means I translate novels from English and Norwegian into German. I'm self-employed and location-independent, which makes it quite easy to fit work around training.
In 2014, I competed in the Dalsland Canoe Marathon in Sweden. I had a deadline coming up and remember translating part of the novel in the shelter we were staying in next to a lake and a campfire somewhere in the forest in Sweden! Usually, though, it just means sitting down at a desk in front of a laptop and disciplining myself to work hard in order to get ahead and make time for any training sessions and other adventures I want to do later on.
I also work as an outdoor guide (skiing, climbing, canoeing, kayaking and rafting) with Art of Outdoor and Rheinraft in the Blackforest.
What are your favourite races and why?
My favourite race is the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race, by far. There's just no other race I have done that compares to it and I doubt that I’ll ever find one that will.
It's a very special event (even though they’re still a little behind on gender-equality...). Because it's so tough, everybody helps each other out. If you’re left without support at a portage, someone will invariably feed you and ask if you need anything else.
It's also about everybody who’s in it, not just about the people who achieve places. Paddling 125 miles is a huge achievement in itself, no matter how fast or slow you do it. In fact, I have so much respect for anybody who does it slower, because they’re just out on the water for so much longer each day. The mental strength required to do that is incredible.
I also very much liked the Clay Country Half Marathon in St. Austell and the Dalsland Canoe Marathon (55k) in Sweden.
What is your typical hydration strategy for a marathon race like the DW? You took our online Sweat Test before the race, did you feel our advice and stronger electrolytes made a difference to your race?
I need lots of fluid. Basically, I always go with what feels right, and I can’t take really sweet sports drinks. If it's cold, I’ll have peppermint or lemon and ginger tea, because it’s just easier to take in enough fluids this way.
During races, I'd carry a Camelback that has water with a pinch of salt in it. I just find it more refreshing than anything sweet. I’ll have the occasional sweet/flavoured drink at portages, and take in the necessary energy through food.
Andy Parritt, who supported me during the race and who participates in lots of endurance events himself, recommended Precision Hydration and for me to check out the website and take the online Sweat Test. I've always added a pinch of rock salt whenever I was drinking and/or sweating a lot, just because it felt right, so Precision Hydration’s general principle wasn’t new to me and makes a lot of sense.
But, to be honest, I still wasn’t entirely convinced. I said to Andy “It’s all well and good, but it’s basically the same as adding a pinch of salt to my drinking water”. But he brought some PH 1500 and the PH 1000 along to the race, I tried it, and that’s what convinced me in the end.
I would mix up some PH 1500 in the evening, drink part of it after that day’s racing and part of it the next morning, it just felt like the right thing to drink and I very much like that it’s not too sweet. Andy had a bottle with PH 1000 when he was supporting me, so I drank some of that during the actual effort. I definitely think that if you feel you’re eating and drinking right it'll make a huge difference to your race. I felt really good with PH and will use it again in my next race. Everybody’s different, you just have to try and test until you find what works for you.
How important are the support crew to your success in a race like the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race? Talk us through their role.
A good support crew is essential, couldn’t have done it without them! At DW, your support crew basically meets you at some of the portages, shouts encouragement at you and shoves food into your mouth!
I was really lucky to have two people supporting me this year, which made such a big difference! My dad came over from Germany and it was the first marathon race he'd ever seen. He took it very seriously! In the weeks leading up to the race we talked on the phone a lot, he bought all the relevant maps and marked out the course on them, I filmed our club’s DW-briefing and sent him the videos.
My mum really wanted to come and support me too, but only one of them could, because somebody needed to stay at home with my younger sisters and the dog. Just the psychological effect of having your whole family support you on that level is invaluable.
When I did the race in 2012, I basically had no idea what it actually was, didn’t have my own support crew and got helped out by the whole club, who were feeding me whenever their paddlers were roughly the same speed. To know that somebody else was there purely to help me succeed in my race this year, who supported me emotionally, made sure all the camping equipment was there, and prepared the heaps of pasta I ate in the evenings took a lot of pressure of me and allowed me to focus on my race.
It also gave me a big boost of motivation whenever I saw my dad standing at a portage I was approaching. Andy is really enthusiastic about DW and endurance events in general, and when the logistics of supporting one of our straight-through crews got too complicated, he decided to support me on the four-day event. Having someone on the bike right next to the canal was awesome. Not all the portages are easy to get to by car, so having somebody follow you on a bike just gives you more constant support.
Andy is also really experienced with endurance races, so I felt he really understood what I needed and how best to motivate and encourage me. At Marsh Lock, all I could think about was how hungry I was, having refused to eat earlier on in the race because I’d been so cold. Marsh is a long portage, so Andy ran alongside me and fed me some roasted and salted nuts - it felt like he was saving me from starvation at the time! He probably covered more miles than I did in this race...
And what about your nutrition plan, how did you stay fuelled over such a long period of time?
First of all, I just like eating well, and not just in the lead-up to a race. I always feel like I ask a lot from my body, so I should take good care of it too. But, I’d never go crazy about nutrition, I think food should be fun and enjoyable. I'm really superstitious about having to have lots of pasta before a race day. The day before DW we actually changed restaurants because the pub we were in didn’t have a pasta dish on the menu!
I always bring cold spaghetti and some grated cheese, because you never know if what you get eating out really has enough carbs. The last weekend before the DW, my club does a “depletion paddle”, which is basically a training session with the aim of depleting your glycogen depots.
After that, you’re not supposed to eat any carbs before Monday morning, and then you start carb-loading for the race. On the morning of a race, I swear by oats and a banana. I wouldn’t overdo the breakfast, because you don’t want to get started feeling like your food is weighing you down.
Then, during the race my main foods are bananas and flapjack. Just like with the drinks, I don’t react well to anything purely sugary. Bananas are easy to eat, they give you lots of energy and also a lot of good stuff, like potassium to help prevent cramp.
Later on in the race, it works really well for me if my support crew fills them with glucose or dextrose tablets. Flapjack has the longer burning carbs from the oats to balance out all the sugar, so it gives you a real boost without the sugar rush. I make my own and use slightly less butter than most recipes ask for. I get fed up with the sweet stuff on the long run, so I also have some boiled baby potatoes and some salty pringles. If I can feel that I’m about to get really low, I will take an energy gel.
What's next for you? What are your goals in the shorter and longer terms?
I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I’m due to do an Inline-Skate marathon on Monday. A friend of mine helped organise it, so I just said sign me up…this was months ago!
I haven’t done any training and just hope my general fitness from DW will carry me through. I also have the South German Championships in Slalom coming up, where I hope to qualify for the Nationals.
In the slightly longer term, I’m pretty sure I’ll do DW again. I’d very much like to do the straight through race at some point, if I find the right K2 partner I’m definitely going to go for that sooner rather than later. In the really long term, joining the 1000-Mile-Club would be amazing.