In exactly one month from today, I’ll be standing on the water in the quaint little city of Leeuwarden, enjoying my final few moments of normality before the horn blows to signal the beginning of the world’s longest stand up paddle race. I’ll be surrounded by 100 odd paddlers who share a similar penchant for pain and suffering.
The SUP 11 City Tour is a unique race. It’s also a very special race… With its five stages covering 200+ kms (125 miles) and passing through 11 different towns and cities in the rural Dutch province of Friesland, this is one of the most difficult challenges in the sport. Competitors paddle up to 45kms a day for five days straight, which is almost a Molokai a day. Each morning begins as a mass start, with daily finishing times combined to form an overall leaderboard.
The winners take 22-24 hours to complete the course. That’s if the weather’s good. Often it’s not…
It’s as much a mental challenge as a physical one. “Five days of pain in Friesland” I nicknamed it last year. But despite the grueling nature of the event, the 11 City Tour is, in a strange way, hugely fun and enjoyable. It’s like a bizarre drug that you just can’t get enough of, with many competitors returning year after year for more punishment.
Though “competitors” is perhaps the wrong word; adventurers is a more apt description for those who sign on for this amazing expedition.
I first attempted the 11 Cities in 2014. I finished, but only just. So it’s with a sense of determination, excitement and slight trepidation that I’ll be making my return to the land of tulips and windmills next month. Once again I’ll be entering the most popular division: The five day solo competition (I don’t even want to think about that crazy “Non-stop Tour” division).
The 11 City Tour broke me last year. On the first two days I was so mentally drained and exhausted that I wanted to quit. During the opening stage I suffered cramps so bad that at one point I literally couldn’t switch hands on my paddle. Towards the end of the stage I hit the wall so hard that I lost almost 10 minutes to my closest rivals in the final two kilometres alone.
Day two was even worse. I got dropped by the first draft train, then the second, then the third. I couldn’t hold a wash to save myself, leaving me to paddle the final two hours on my own and into a headwind. The cows in the adjacent fields stared blankly, blissfully unaware of how much pain the simple act of stand up paddling can cause.
Thankfully the final three days were a big improvement, which inspired me to return, however I was still naively under-prepared and ignorantly over-confident about the whole race last year. I thought it’d be a nice walk in the park. I was wrong. Probably didn’t help that I’d barely trained in the lead up to 11 Cities 2014.
Unfortunately my training regime hasn’t been much better this year. In fact it’s been non-existent the past few months. I haven’t done a long distance race since May, and I’ve only been on a race board twice in the past month. Yep, I’m in trouble…
Fortunately I’ll have some quality help.
I’ll be racing in the Netherlands alongside Team Starboard. After my interesting but painful experiment of racing an inflatable in last year’s Tour, this year I’ll be on a nice shiny carbon board. The Starboard Sprint (14′ x 23″) to be precise. It’s widely regarded as the fastest production board in the world, so it should make my 11 Cities campaign a lot more enjoyable.
As an honourary member of Team Starboard for a week, I’ll be joined by the godfather of endurance paddling, and the undisputed king of the SUP 11 City Tour, Bart de Zwart. Bart is a four time and defending champion of this race, and he’ll be looking for a fifth, and perhaps final crown next month before handing over the mantle to the next generation of endurance freaks.
Standing in Bart’s way will be a series of challengers, not least of which is 2013 champ and 2014 runner-up Peter Bartl. Paddling for the JP Australia team (which is confusing because he’s from Austria), Bartl paddled beside Bart virtually the entire race last year. The final margin, after more than 22 hours of paddling, was less than half a minute. Amazingly, the lead duo almost never drafted each other directly, preferring to sit side-by-side and utilise the V-wash instead.
I hear that Bart’s closest rival from the 2011 race, Ryan James from Team Mistral, will also make a return to Friesland.
Bart’s fellow Dutchman (and another member of Team Starboard) Martijn van Deth will be there again, and he should be another good bet for the podium. Martijn finished a strong third last year and looks hungry to go one or two spots better. He’s a veteran of this race, and experience is key in the SUP 11 City Tour.
Also joining us in Friesland will be the highly under rated Hasulyo brothers, Daniel and Bruno. These kids, originally from Hungary but now living in New Zealand, grew up on the Starboard windsurfing team and have only recently switched their focus to SUP. To say they’re part of Team Starboard is an understatement. They quite literally have the Tiki logo tattooed on their ribs…
This will be the Hasulyo’s first Tour, and probably their first real international race, however from all reports they’ve got massive potential. Daniel showed that earlier in the year by winning the New Zealand Nationals, so I’m really excited to see what they can do in Holland.
And we’ll all be joined by dozens and dozens of paddlers from across Europe, and a few from around the world. Some will be well known racers, though most will just be doing this race for the personal accomplishment of reaching the finish.
No matter what happens you’ll be the first to know: Thanks to Starboard, I’ll be sending you the results, updates and insights after every stage of this year’s SUP 11 City Tour.
As for my personal preparation, despite my late start I’ve gotten some great training tips from my good friend back home in Australia, the ageless warrior Kelly Margetts. Kelly’s in his 40s yet he’s been a regular fixture on the uber-prestigious Battle of the Paddle top 10 podium. You don’t get to be that fast at that age without knowing how to train, so I lent on Kelly for some tips ahead of the 11 Cities. Over the next four weeks I’ll be working on a focused training plan to get as ready as I possibly can for the “Tour de France” of SUP.
Yeah, I’ve left my training waaay too late, but with a solid month on the water and a great board under my feet, I’m really hoping I can improve on my result from last year (15th). I’ve never been a particularly fast paddler, and I much prefer sprints to long distance races (let alone ultra long distance races), but that’s exactly why I love the 11 Cities. This challenge takes you outside your comfort zone and pushes you to the limit, both mentally and physically.
Steeped in over a century of history (the 11 Cities began as an ice skating marathon), this race offers paddlers a very unique experience and also a very unique atmosphere. The camaraderie between the paddlers is fantastic. We often spend hours sitting next to each other in the draft trains before sharing the same accommodation each night: A fleet of old school Dutch sailing boats that resembles a floating hostel. You really get to know your fellow paddlers by the end of the week.
It’s an amazing race and I can’t wait to do it all over again next month.
The countdown is on. Now, time to go do some training…