It’s been a while since I’ve been set a sporting challenge, even though I seem to have been testing myself on a daily basis for the past few months as I gear up to do a standard distance triathlon at the end of June. Which actually leads me onto a recurring theme with both today’s challenge, and a little personal achievement which happened a few weeks ago. To manage expectations, I have not been selected to go to Rio this summer, but in March, as a warm up to my triathlon I did a 10k running race at the triathlon venue. Dorney Lake is a great venue, close to London and host to the rowing from the 2012 Olympics. So I must take this moment to share that, having gone into the race with the aim of doing around 53mins, I was delighted to do 49mins, and win my age group! There, we can actually say I have won a medal at an Olympic venue!
Momentary smugness aside, and onto this week’s challenge – hydrospeeding.
Familiar with it as a sport? No, neither was I, but further investigation showed that it is basically like white water rafting, but without the raft! And what better place to do it than the Lee Valley White Water Centre. Spot the connection, another Olympic venue from 2012 - this one hosted the slalom canoeing. As a strong swimmer, the watery side of this challenge didn’t overly phase me, but it does take a certain amount of commitment to take two tubes, a train and a bus to get even to the venue. But when I got there I was super excited, if a little amazed to see such a facility on the outskirts of an industrial estate at Waltham Cross.
I found myself yet again being more nervous about turning up to an activity like this on my own, and wondered if I would be one lone person in amongst a stag party? Yet again though, I needn’t have worried as the staff at the Centre were so welcoming and I was briefed along with a group of 10 couples doing the ‘hotdog rafting’ and two young guys who were joining me in the hydrospeeding challenge. Our instructor was Lois, who immediately put myself, James and Cameron at ease. She explained that it was their policy to ask a couple of questions, which everyone was asked, so not to be offended. Was I over 18? Haha, yes (definitely not offended) did I weigh less that 18 stone? Again, affirmative, if slightly offended.
All kitted out in wetsuits, helmets, lifejackets and flippers, we waddled our way over the flat area of the course for a short acclimatisation. We got familiar with the hydroboards, something like the bow end of a boat, crafted out of polystyrene, that your hands and arms slot into. Firstly we had to simulate going over on our back and righting ourselves. Already slightly more difficult than it looked. Next we had to do a short swim test, which if we didn’t manage we wouldn’t be able to continue the activity. Well surely swimming is my forte? Ah, but this wasn’t swimming per se, but throwing ourselves backwards off a ledge into a rapid, to check that we could travel downstream on our backs without panicking. As I edged my way out with my slippery flippered feet onto the ledge, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had accidentally auditioned for a Bear Grylls programme. Hopefully the day wouldn’t end with me drinking my own wee…
This was a real adrenaline rush as you immediately went under the crashing waves and were swept along, with coaches on bankside shouting ‘keep your feet out of the water!’ Damn flippers, this was hard. Then onto our fronts and swim to the bank. And I was in, phew.
The next stage was to stand on the bank, arms in hydroboard and throw ourselves dive-like into the swirling water. Lois told us this was to see how to use the eddys. My first slight error on this was to throw myself flat in, meaning I felt like I had winded myself as my chest hit the board. Apparently the technique is to point the nose of the board down into the water, doh. So, this was to be a case of paddling into the rapids, and then to keep kicking out of the other side and across to the far eddy and get out. First to go and I demonstrated perfectly how to NOT use the eddy, as I missed the spot and got swept into one of the fastest moving parts of the course. As the current is so strong there, apparently they try not to use that part of the course as it is very difficult to get out at the bottom. Enter Lois with her throw rope to the rescue to pull me back in, oh dear....
One more go and we had perfected this move and so it was over to the start of the course, for a long run. Not to be phased by earlier events, I volunteered to go first again and threw myself into the bubbling water. Wow, now this was a rush! There are a series of about seven rapids, which rise up at you like mini crashing waterfalls. You hardly get time to catch your breath between one rapid and you're swept into the next one. Ah but there we go again, in amongst the mini rafts crashing around, and I had missed my eddy to get out once more, I think on more than one occasion I caused a moment of alarm with the coaches on bankside as they looked to see where I had gone and I was about 10metres further down the course than I should have been. What can I say, competitive!
But this is a sport that never lets up. You might have just got to grips with getting round the course without drowning or raising major alarm, and it is time to learn a new skill. Surfing in the waves at the bottom of the rapids. The boys and I looked nervously at each other, not inspired with confidence as Lois said, "I'll drop in here, and show you and if it doesn't work I'll get the next one down". So, the trick is apparently to go backwards down the rapid (well that doesn't seem right for a start) and to then kick yourself into the wave crashing in front of you. Here we go, I'll give it a shot. Lois said she would pull us into the wave to start with, and there it is again, the shouts of "kick, kick, kick!'. And then to get out you almost throw yourself backwards into the mercy of the rapid. Wow!
The session gives you an hour in the water, but I have never seen so many people looking like they have been defeated in a big watery fight. I was particularly regretting my 20 mile bike ride that morning, when I had thought that this was going to be a nice 'bobbing along' kind of afternoon. This was like a 60min swim kick set in the North Sea. But I had LOVED it! Even as I dragged myself out after yet again missing the eddy and having to kick like hell to get to a set of steps, I still didn't want to waste a minute and crammed in as many runs as I could. Ah, but the effort was starting to tell. as is captured perfectly by the photographer in these final few shots below. He very generously commented that I had 'taken my game face' to the challenge. Oh yes, and these aren't the worst. When given the choice of which pics I wanted to buy to remember my afternoon I requested all of them, mainly in the hope that no-one else after me would see them!
Well done Lee Valley, this is a legacy from the Olympics to be proud of!
But yet I am not quite sure that these pictures capture the effort of it so have found this Youtube clip of some poor reporter who was put through the watery wringer below...
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.