British Canoe Marathon team claim 5 medals at all star World Cup

2016’s only Marathon World Cup took place last weekend on the river Cavado in Vila Verde, Portugal. With the promise of prize money for the senior races, and both Spain and Portugal using this as their final selection event for the Worlds, the level of competition in many of the races was as good as it gets.

The GB team combined youth and experience. Juniors were in the majority, with four girls (Bronte Holden of Fowey CC, Hafsa Kabeer of Longridge, Flo Duffield of Norwich and Harriet Quigley of Bradford on Avon) and four boys (Luke Shaw of Norwich, David Hatton of Chester, Chris Carson of Wey and Oscar McKittrick of Elmbridge). Mike Goodall of Elmbridge and Nick Romain of Richmond raced senior men’s classes. Finally, the Portuguese federation had invited last year’s top finishers from the worlds to race, so we were joined by Lizzie Broughton of Richmond and Keith Moule of Chelmsford.

The marathon World Cup format now combines two distances, but for singles only. First there is a knock-out 3.6km short course competition, followed by a full-distance marathon on the last day. The short course format is fast and exciting, with two portages and three short laps in around 15 minutes of racing – top placings and fastest losers from each heat qualifying for a final.

The River Cavado is very natural with shallows, relatively fast flow and underwater obstacles to contend with, so this made racing interesting and technical. This kind of race perhaps less common in the UK, so it tested the river skills of our athletes. Downstream from the start into a headwind was hard on the arms, especially when shallow sections were hard to spot. Then the upstream involved avoiding rocks and trees both in and out of the water while keeping your boat out of the current.

The junior men’s short race saw two heats, each with two of our boys racing. David and Luke went in heat one. Luke managed a great first lap, racing coolly through the portage while many of the young athletes attempted the Adrian Boros style they had researched on YouTube, with amusing and calamitous consequences. Luke’s portage saw him out in 2nd place on lap 2, comfortably ahead of the next group, when he paddled under a tree and left his paddles behind. Overtaken by the next group including David, Luke lost at least a minute. Meanwhile, David paddled an excellent race to qualify in 2nd behind the Portuguese Ferreira, with Luke 7th and out of the final.

The second heat included Chris and Oscar. In this one the top juniors seemed a little better prepared, with Portugal, Germany and Denmark setting a fast pace. Our boys raced intelligently but had to settle for 4th and 5th respectively, and a short but painful wait to see if they had qualified. They both did, joining David in the final.

Lizzie held on to a dominant paddle from the Slovakian Bedec in her heat to qualify for the women’s final. In the first men’s race, Mike had a capsize, ending his chances, and Keith was 9th, out of the qualifying spots. Nick finished 6th in the second race, missing out on “fastest loser” qualification by only 5 seconds.

The junior women had a straight final and enjoyed considerably more success. Our reputation of having one of the best Women’s teams in world canoe racing was reinforced by claiming the top four places. Flo broke away with Harriet after the first lap, and stayed in front to claim the gold medal in front of her team-mate. Hafsa and Bronte came in close behind in that order. The organisers may have had to look at the very back of the closet for not one, but three union jacks, the national anthem was played, and we briefly held top spot in the medal table.

In the junior boys final, the strong Portuguese and German teams (who had clearly practiced their portages) dominated. David raced superbly to stay in the hunt for 3rd place but was beaten in the sprint and finished 5th, with Oscar 7th and an uncomfortable-looking Chris in 10th. It soon transpired that Chris had suffered an injury which brought a premature end to his racing weekend.

The women’s races included every one of the top contenders for the world title later this year. Lizzie raced intelligently with the Slovak Kristina Bedocs to claim silver, ahead of Hungary’s U23 world champ Vanda Kiszli. To give an idea of the quality of the race, behind them were the multiple world champion Renata Csay, 5k World Cup winner Jenny Egan and current world marathon champion Anna Koziskova. The equally strong men’s race was won by South Africa’s Andy Birkett, followed by local hero Jose Ramalho and the Hungarian YouTube portage star (as well as K2 world champion) Boros.

Four medals to the good, we headed into Sunday’s gruelling long course racing. Luckily the temperatures stayed reasonable, with only 30 degree heat compared to the 40 degrees of Friday. All of a sudden, the start lists were swelled by dozens of Spanish and Portuguese paddlers chasing international selection, and the strength in depth of canoe marathon in these two countries was impressive. They race hard, and are excellent both technically and tactically.

The boys’ race was off first, and the starter struggled to manage the 42 boats on a pontoon not quite long enough to hold them. It was quickly clear that our young team, most of whom have another junior year ahead of them, were outgunned this time. Nevertheless they raced their hearts out to finish well within the top half of the field, David coming in 13th, one place ahead of Oscar, with Luke in 17th.

It was a similar story in the 22-strong girls’ race, although Harriet raced superbly to hold on to a large front group of Spanish and Portuguese girls who gave her no quarter. Constantly forced to the 5th wash by a group which switched positions every time the British athlete found a better place, she nevertheless held on throughout, losing out narrowly in 4th place. Hafsa raced excellently to 11th. An early and scary swim for Bronte saw Flo rescue her from a tree as the organisers’ safety boat seemed more intent on following the front group, but the two girls got going again, and picked off other athletes throughout the race to finish in 16th and 17th.

The women’s long race started intensely as the top guns sought to make Renata Csay suffer as she had done in the short course race. A front group of all the main contenders formed, except for the world champ Anna Koziskova a short way behind. Renata struck at half way as she likes to do, and broke the group, with Bedec launching a solo chase. Lizzie followed with Jenny Egan and were caught by Anna K. Seeing the top two go well clear, Lizzie conserved energy while Anna pushed on unnecessarily, with the result that Lizzie beat her in the sprint for bronze.

The men’s race had so many entries that the organisers were forced to split the U23s from the Seniors. Keith and Mike raced the senior race to 12th and 20th respectively from 33 starters, with the race won in the same order as the short course by Birkett, Ramalho and Boros. In the U23s, Nick had a very good race to finish 7th from 25 starters.

Well done to the team for their results and commitment, and thank you to the staff: Dyson and Ali Pendle who drove the minibus and trailer over, Jim Rossiter who is driving it back after three days of providing entertaining race commentary worthy of Murray Walker, and last but not least Katie Williams whose tireless commitment and occasional medical help kept the team on track.

James Smythe, team manager.