The SUP 11 Cities race is one of the most well-known SUP events in Europe; and each year draws racers from all across Europe and beyond. The race is inspired by the Elfstedentocht, a famous ice skating race that travels through eleven cities in the Dutch province of Friesland. Racers paddle approximately 220km through the picturesque canals and waterways of Friesland, passing through eleven historic cities along the way. The race can either be done as a non-stop, in which you must complete the distance in under 34 hours (men) or 36 hours (women), or over 5-days (by far the most popular option!)
I first attempted the 11 Cities non-stop race in 2022; a last minute entry following the disappointment of having to withdraw from the Yukon 1000 2022. Determined to earn my 11 Cities Cross, I headed back out to beautiful Friesland a few days before the 2023 race. This year my support was going to come from good friend Ella Oesterholt - absolutely no pressure (she won it last year! )
This year I was also racing on a new board; the Yster Balsalty. This was a prototype board and I didn't get a chance to paddle it until the day before the race, but at 14 x 26 it was a very stable platform and I found myself at home on it very quickly.
With a country that is well known for being incredibly flat, wind can be one of the biggest challenges on this race - but for 2023 we had an almost too perfect forecast - it was going to be hot (day time temps 25 degrees +, and only dropping to around 16 degrees at night) and pretty much zero wind!
We set off from Leeuwarden at 8am on the Saturday morning as the sun rose and I quickly settled in to a pace and cadence that I felt I could comfortably maintain, slotting into 4th place. For most of the day I battled with keeping hydrated and doing my best to keep as cool as possible, regularly scoping up cups of water to pour over my head. My support crew of Ella and Wietske were impeccable - always popping up at random parts of the route, ensuring I was drinking and eating enough and letting me know about the next stage of the race I was about to do. I had given them full permission to order me about, and this they did!
As we moved into he night a new challenge arose; unlike last year where we had clear skies and a full moon this year there was no moonlight - and due to the hot days, a thick fog rose from the water. This quickly made navigation a real challenge. Out in the countryside it was pitch black and the fog meant we couldnt see the banks, or our boards - it was like floating through a cloud. Headtorches were of no use as they reflected light back at you causing blindness so I had to navigate using the GPS mapping on my watch. This worked surprisingly well and whilst a little unnerving I made it through the night and was pleased to see the first signs of daylight.
It was an absolutely stunning sunrise and there were a few moments spent paddling with other racers (up until now I had pretty much been on my own for most of the race). Around 7am I did some calculations and was on for a 30 hour finish if I could continue my pace. But things were set to go a little off plan! I was starting to suffer from fatigue in my hips which was slowing me down as I had to keep stretching; breaking my pace while I stopped paddling. And as the day went on the canals filled with weekend holiday makers; there were boats and people everywhere; the water was choppy, we had to navigate through narrow canals full of weekend leisure craft and people swimming to cool off. My pace really started to tumble and I started to worry I was going to miss the 34 hour cutoff to earn my 11 Cities Cross. A pep talk from my support team and a long hard chat with myself and I managed to push through the low and pick up the pace and finished the race overall in 8th place, with a time of 33 hours and 23 mins.
The 11 Cities Non-Stop is such a special endurance race; earning the cross took a lot out of me and if it wasn't for my incredible support crew pushing me on I'm not sure I would have made the cutoff. Within a few hours of finishing though, I was already thinking about what I would change in my strategy next year....!