There is, tucked away, tickling at the brainstem, a long-cherished wish list of horrible adventures, events, trips and crossings to be completed one day. They smoulder for years, but then, led by their own illogic, they suddenly erupt, urgent and compelling, relighting the fire in the (now ample) belly. And hopefully leaving me enough time to train.
In 2013 it was the Dalsland Canoe Marathon+ in Sweden, a seriously challenging endurance canoe marathon that is held in a cracking setting during the second week in August. There is a most capricious element lurking in the “plus” of that name: 55km is a long, long way in a kayak.
I sneak an early departure to Gothenburg; on the approach I see unlimited forest. And then I drive and drive north through it – a wilderness of a specifically Scandinavian sort. Somehow the Swedes have managed to carve a life out of these pine barrens. Small farms fit into any fertile section between granite outcrops, but the trees go on forever and ever. Then, in Dalsland, the land is slashed by water – lakes all linked by canal for the forestry that dominated here a century ago.
I am alarmed by the sight of so many cars headed in the opposite direction with kayaks on the roof. Either every Swede canoes for pleasure, or they’re so terrified by the challenges this marathon poses that they are fleeing at the 11th hour en masse. A little daunting either way, really.
I arrive in Baldersnäs, where the race starts in the grounds of a country hotel. The old manor looms white out of the increasing dark, its pyramid gables lined with saw-toothed trim. My competition head is beginning to sprout, so I am expecting a large bowl of pasta. But we are treated to an elegant meal of nettle soup and veal in red wine.
After dinner, I head down to the lakeside, where hundreds of boats are laid out in lines, hulls uppermost. People are making final adjustments. I’m introduced to mine, a yellow tub. Stable, to be sure; but, in something so heavy, tomorrow will be an even more strenuous day than I thought.
After a breakfast of bananas, it’s to the lakeside. I have never seen so many triangular people. Their upper bodies are so overdeveloped they look as if they might topple over at any moment. There’s a handful of other British participants, and we exchange the slightly forced chat of the nervous. We launch, still not quite knowing what we’re letting ourselves in for.
Some 600-700 boats are milling about the start line. Looking around, I see K1s and K2s (double kayaks) and Canadian canoes (open, with single paddles) – boats of all standards and vintages. And then – I can’t quite believe it – there’s a man who intends to do the whole race standing up on a paddle board.
Lined up, we form a front, 1km wide. Months of training is bursting to be released – they can’t hold us to the countdown, and the field streams off in an arrowhead of flashing paddles, chopped water and rolling wakes. Unbelievably, the swell of so many boats drags me along, like a cycling peloton. Soon enough, though, we’re stretched out and settle down to concentrate, making every stroke count, turning the body, working the legs.
Forty minutes in, I reach the first portage, knowable by the flurry of activity in the trees. If the kayaking has been tiring, carrying the tub to the next stretch of water is near to excruciating after just 390m. It’s a huge relief to be back afloat on the other side.
The next lake is pinched by some geological fracture to a few hundred yards wide. It’s incredibly beautiful. Tiny moments of Scandinavian perfection – granite outcrops with a single pine tree – are multiplied many times over. Against a wan sky of rain-laden clouds, the land is rich and dark, the trees a lustrous green and the lake gun-metal grey.
Momentarily, through the second portage, there is liveliness and good humour: “Oooh, the competitor from Britain has just tipped himself in…!” People hand us bananas and cake, fill my water bottle and shout names in encouragement. Then, back in the boat, the activity and human contact recede again.
With the silence begins the truly hard part – the solitary graft. Keep the boat moving, eyes on the horizon and mind on technique; above all, never slack. Occasionally, I fire off other canoeists, trying to forge ahead, but it is surprisingly difficult to pass. The mind plays tricks. Sliding over dark, millpond water, trying to ignore the searing in the muscles, I think I am barely moving at all; but a passing rock marks me at a medium jog.
Still, you’d be mad not to look around. Tucked into the trees are dark red cabins with pretty white trim. A church on an island marks the halfway point.
Turning south, we reach another portage. Music, energy drinks, cake – any contact is uplifting at moments like this – but soon we’re back on the water, passing pleasure boats and curious fishermen.
At the start they joked that it never rains during the marathon. Never again with that line. Lightning fires at the earth – hurriedly I check for metal, but there is not much in a plastic boat – and then Thor angrily tears open the sky. The lake becomes burnished steel, and strange, the raindrops ball on impact, a million marbles on a molten surface.
Any true endurance race is longer than you want it to be at the time. And at the three-quarter mark, it hurts – really hurts. The marathon “plus” is straining every muscle in the top half of my body. I am completely soaked, grunting aloud, feeling desperate. My shoulders and back are screaming for it to be over; but I cannot even see the finish.
Come, eventually, it does though. I slide under the finishing tape. Relief, cheers, delirium. I roll out of the boat (there’s no point in, or possibility of, trying to stand). That’s 8km per hour in a yellow tub. Not too bad in the end.
Eventually, I discover how hard I tried: my hair is too rough on my blistered hands for me to wash it, but then, I can’t actually raise my arms above my shoulders anyway to do so. I subside into a post-extreme-exertion doze.
So, Sunday… How lazy can a man be? Massage? Seven hours on the shoulders, perhaps? No – time for more exercise.
It’s true: there is good mountain-biking territory here, and Magnus, one of the locals, pitches up to show me around. We head off into the forest, tracking, very roughly, yesterday’s course, weaving around the lakes. We’ll be moving more quickly, of course, but with the twists and turns it’ll be farther. We scoot along the lakeside, water flashing between the pine and birch, the crisp sound of light gravel under our tyres. And then we begin to climb, through isolated farms and small communities of summer houses, each flying the national pennant. Today, it seems, it’s jellied thighs.
Then there is the downhill. On abandoned village paths where bushes lash at our legs and logs try to trip us up, and then forest tracks Ω light and dark, light, dark Ω as the sun lances through. Corrugations jar my hands and sore shoulders like a jack-hammer. There is still some forestry here, as I notice a pile of cut logs – it smells like slamming into a sauna. At the foot of the slope we pass through a portage from yesterday, the site of so much agony, celebration and endeavour. Today it’s an undistinguished picnic spot.
Halfway through I am already scratching yesterday’s exhaustion, back to severely laboured breathing and a loosely hinged mind. Unpronounceable vowels and town names cause unreasonable delight – Säffle, Skröfva. I decide I am very, very glad that kayaking doesn’t involve paddling uphill.
There are lush corners, but the mountainsides are mostly thin grass and heather. We ride hard on a single track above yesterday’s finish line in Bengtfors, where the broken rock protrudes and pine roots grapple at your tyres. It’s slippery as hell in drizzle, and hard to negotiate. A fallen tree has lifted its entire root system, exposing granite beneath. But on the final stretch back to Baldersnäs, as we come around a corner, we are met with a magical sight: a moose standing, statuesque, overlooking the road, its calf by its side.
Back at the hotel, I subside again into overheated slumber for a couple of hours.
After a chase back to Gothenburg, I board the flight home to London. If a measure of a weekend’s success is how much you ache at the end of it, then this was an indisputable triumph. I barely manage the stairs down to collect my bag, and then… do I lift it onto my shoulders? Not likely. I grab a trolley instead.