World Marathon Championships – the senior races (long read)

The new timetable for the Marathon Worlds grouped all the senior races together on the weekend, after the completion of junior and U23 races. In Portugal, this created more of an opportunity to showcase the big K1 titles, especially local hero Jose Ramalho’s attempt to finally win a world title after years of dominating at European but not World level.

Lizzie Broughton of Richmond and Alex Lane of Longridge were our first competitors of the weekend in the senior Women’s K1. Crowned World K1 5km champion only two weeks previously, Lizzie was a favourite, but in a race which featured at least eight established medallists, and last year’s silver medallist Vanda Kiszli of Hungary. Alex took a world bronze last year in the U23 race, but was stepping up to the full senior class for the first time in K1.

The race was hotly contested from the start, with the two Hungarians, a Slovakian (OK, actually another Hungarian who changed nationality!), a Czech, Spanish, two South Africans, Ireland’s Jenny Egan and Lizzie at times forming a perfect diamond of nine boats – in between ferocious burns to gain position. After two laps all were together, but the first portage saw a break into two groups with Lizzie in the second.

Not far back in 11th place, Alex was racing well in a group of four when a clash of paddles put her in the water, losing over two minutes. She raced well from there to claim 13th place, but was bitterly disappointed by the places lost.

All did not seem OK for Lizzie, as she struggled to gain position as the group re-formed again and again over the course of the race. With a lap to go, she was unable to stay with the leaders and finished 8th, and ahead of her Kiszli won a maiden K1 title in the bunch sprint. Our top canoe racing athlete of the season across both sprint and marathon, Lizzie is ever-present in races and has raced well all year, but this time was one too far.

Tim Pendle of Norwich was GB’s only entry in the Men’s K1. Reigning champion Hank McGregor was saving himself for the K2, so a new champion would be crowned, but there were at least a dozen decent candidates for the job. Tim’s aim was to race for as long as possible in the front group, and managed to do so as it thinned gradually from nearly 20 down to around 10. Unfortunately the pace and relentless changing of washes took its toll and Tim dropped back from the half-way point, to eventually finish 18th.

The race was most remarkable for what happened to Portugal’s Jose Ramalho. Racing a brand new Nelo Sete, he started with great assurance, but within a lap was towards the back of the group, and by the portage at the end of lap two, he was nearly a minute adrift. His new boat had taken a knock to the bow, and a small hole in the state-of-the-art K1 was enough to start him sinking. It took two stops at successive portages for repairs before he was watertight enough to pump out the excess, and by which time the local hero was two and a half minutes in arrears, in 19th position.

Ramalho then started an astonishing comeback over the remaining laps – first two minutes, then one and a half, then one, then ten seconds, finally catching the leaders with a lap to go. Unfortunately this left him unable to sprint effectively and he finished sixth, only 13 seconds down on new champion Andy Birkett of South Africa. As far as the crowd was concerned however, he retained his hero status in style.

Sunday saw the senior women’s K2. Sam Rees-Clark and Alex Lane were doubling up after their exertions of the previous days, in a race that looked fairly open once you looked past the inevitable dominance of Hungary. New world champion Kiszli in one boat, and 18-time World Champion Renata Csay in the other.

After a lap, the Csay K2 launched its predictable attack, with our crew well placed in third behind the Kiszli crew. However, Kiszli lost control on the turn giving Csay the perfect opportunity to attack off the front. Kiszli was out with a broken rudder cable, but Sam and Alex were left in a group of five to contest the minor medals.

Life was not simple in the chasing group, as two Spanish crews, South Africans and Czechs did more to interfere with each other than to try to chase down the Hungarians. However the GB crew managed themselves extremely well around the washes and through the first two portages, and looked like favourites for the silver. As they approached the end of lap 4/7 however, disaster struck – a Spanish paddler hit their rudder hard with a paddle and our women lost steering. Despite running through the portage, they had to come in for repairs, and inspection revealed race-ending damage to the rudder mounting.

This was a devastating end to a great race, and the whole GB team and supporters did their best to console Sam and Alex, but it was a huge opportunity taken from our athletes in suspect circumstances.

The team had to perk up quickly, because the Senior Men’s K2 started soon after, featuring Leighton Buzzard’s Charlie Smith and Longridge’s Magnus Gregory. This crew started racing marathons together as a last-minute scratch crew at last year’s Worlds, performing very well. Again, the race plan involved sticking with the relentless front group pace for as many laps as possible, both to gain a good final result but also to gain vital experience for seasons to come.

Mags and Charlie managed three of eight laps in the front group, before “settling down” in a group with Argentinian, Norwegian and Swedish boats to eventually finish 14th – although at this level the attacks and pace don’t really calm down once crews have lost the front group.

The team performed well across the board, racing with determination whatever the final result, and I was impressed by the enthusiastic support the paddlers gave each other during the championship. We have a great young marathon team, progressing very well at international level, and who I expect will enjoy many more medals in future. Thanks to all the athletes, the staff of Jo Bates, Dyson and Ali Pendle, and the “supporters club” of parents, coaches, GB masters, club-mates and even the British Canoeing Chairman John Coyne who turned out every day to cheer them on.