The SUP 11 Cities race is a 220km SUP race through the stunning countryside of Friesland in the Netherlands. The race can be done as a non-stop ultra, where competitors have to complete the distance in under 34 hours (men) and 36 hours (women), or over a 5 day staged race where the course is broken down into shorter sections. The race attracts competitors from all over the world and is truly one of the 'must do at least once' SUP events.
I hadn't planned on racing the 11 Cities this year - my focus was on the Yukon 1000, but after the disappointment of pulling out of that race due to COVID, I found myself looking for something else to challenge myself to before the year was out. A few chats with my dutch paddle friends and all of a sudden my entry fee for the non-stop ultra was paid!
I was incredibly lucky to have the support from my Yukon 1000 buddy Janneke Smits - van Leeuwen, along with the equally awesome Ruurd van Wieren. Both are veterans of the race, Janneke having won it before and until this year, holding the women’s record. They drove around the route following me on the tracker day and night - with their experience they knew so many places where they could meet me - popping up at scheduled and random points around the route to refill hydration packs, bringing hot soup, offering guidance on what was coming next and helping me deal with various aches and pains as the km’s ticked by.
It was also great to spend the first couple of hours paddling with the equally awesome Ellas Oeesterholt - the other half of the Yukon 1000 SUP ladies team. We nattered away with each other and other racers until Ella decided she might actually give the race a proper go, put the hammer down and that was the last time I saw her until she crossed the finish line the following day - setting a new women’s record at the same time.
It was absolutely incredible paddling through stunning countryside and villages; being cheered on by people form the banks, bridges and boats. Having to lay down flat on the board to get under some of the very low bridges, crossing large open lakes where the wind kicked up a lumps that put me in the water a few times, to paddling through the night under a full moon - sometimes not seeing anyone or passing through any inhabited location for what seemed like hours. Hallucinating, hearing lapping water behind you and thinking it was another paddler to only turn around and see just darkness.
I set out with two goals - goal one was to make the 100km marker within the 18 hour cutoff - I managed to get there within 15 hours. My second goal was to complete the 200km race within thr 34 hour cutoff. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be - around the 19 hour mark I started to get painful cramps in my legs from standing for so long. I tried to manage it but as time went on I had to keep going to my knees to stretch and my average time started to drop. Mentally and 'above the waist' physically I was feeling really strong and I kept trying to push through it but around 22 hours my legs were trembling uncontrollably and I was finding it hard to balance on the board, almost falling in a few times. We tried resting, walking around on dry land etc but in the end I took the tough decision to pull out around 135km in, just under 23 hours of non-stop paddling. I believe 25 men’s open racers started, and 9 had dropped out before I called it a day.
Disappointed but absolutely so grateful for an incredible experience. This was a very different race to what I had been training for this year but I learnt so much which will only help me become stronger. The Dutch certainly know how to put on an awesome event; the organisation is absolutely impeccable. More unfinished business for next year, and already have adapted my off-season training to accommodate!