THE 350-KILOMETRE DORDOGNE INTÉGRALE RACE, AS TOLD BY TWO ITIWIT AMBASSADORS IN STRENFIT X500 INFLATABLE KAYAKS

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BAPTISTE (Manager, Decathlon Lyon Part Dieu):
Thanks to the Itiwit team, I heard about plans for the "Dordogne Intégrale 350" (350 kilometres from Argentat to Blaye over several days and mostly self-sufficient). I love this kind of multi-day event and I am pretty familiar with the format because I have already completed some for trail walking, mountain biking and mountaineering, but never on the water. So it's a huge personal challenge. As an Itiwit ambassador, I naturally turned to the new Itiwit Strenfit x500 inflatable kayak.
Once I had signed up, there was still all the rest of the planning left to do because, if you are doing a race spanning several days, you need to figure out where to stop and where to sleep at night. But first I needed to find my assistant (obligatory for the race). I turned to a work colleague and friend, also a great sportsman, to follow me and support me in the event. He knows what's in store because he was there in 2018 when I did the Dordogne Intégrale, 130 kilometres on an Itiwit inflatable stand-up paddle board. I knew he would make me laugh at times when it would be the most difficult mentally. And for me, that's key!  NICOLAS (Decathlon Development Manager)
When the Itiwit team announced the 350-kilometre challenge, I did not hesitate for a second. And of course, there was no discussion of doing a relay, I wanted to solo kayak. Élodie, my wife, will accompany me during the race to support me, encourage me and give me supplies. I already know that her role will be decisive for a successful race. 
1 day to go: the alarm clock goes off at the crack of dawn, the taxi is already waiting for us in the road. We quickly load my Itiwit gear consisting of a backpack in which is folded my Itiwit Strenfit x500 kayak that I used on the Dordogne Intégrale 130 km last year, my buoyancy aid, a pump, my paddles and our two suitcases. We head to Paris Orly airport for our flight to Bordeaux.
Once we get to Bordeaux, we pick up our luggage and are on our way. Travelling with an inflatable kayak is a breeze! We pick up our van that we have rented for the occasion and head for Argentat.
   

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#1 Logistics, the cornerstone of this challenge

¤BAPTISTE:
I wrote down every last detail to make this the perfect race, whether it was about the route or the list of equipment to take with me, so that I don't forget anything before, during or after the race. For the course, I decided to start with two long days for a more chilled finish: 
I immediately ruled out the idea of sleeping in a tent. I had already experienced it in 2018 and with bad weather conditions, I never managed to get warm and I ended up falling ill. So I settled on the idea of hiring a motorhome. This means of transport will allow me to sleep well for good recovery. If the weather is bad, I will be able to warm myself up inside from time to time, and share some good times with my assistants.

In terms of preparation, I'm not trying to set any records so I know that mental strength will be more important than physical strength. But to prepare as well as I could, I ran and rowed twice a week for cardio. I also worked on my core muscles because you always need them in a kayak and the paddling position puts huge strain on the body. And, finally, kettlebell exercises to increase upper body strength and endurance.
 

#2 The eve of the race, the pressure is on

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¤BAPTISTE:
As we get to Argentat, we park up at the camping area, which is in fact the rugby stadium of the town. I meet up with people I met in 2018 and the Itiwit team. Nicolas is here too, we say we must be a bit mad to have come all the way here just for this race!
It's time to pick up my bib, GPS tracker and goodies from the organisers. I'm starting to feel the pressure because tomorrow is the big day. I see many kayaks on the way, there are loads of different kayaks but none are inflatable!
Back at camp, I inflate my x500 kayak in less than 5 minutes. This is one of the big advantages of this touring kayak. Then I fit the seat and the footrests and install all the mandatory safety equipment. I fill a 10-litre dry bag with a survival blanket and a first-aid kit just in case. I stow it all in the rear hatch.
For light, at the front, I chose a waterproof torch. But in all honesty, it will be more to help me see what I am doing on the kayak than my surroundings. And to signal my position from behind, I attach a sailing waterproof flashing safety light to the handle. 
To top off my equipment, I add a glow stick to the front pocket of my new Itiwit 50N Pocket buoyancy aid, as well as a Forclaz Trek 900 head torch to see what's happening around me when navigating at night; without forgetting all my food, both sweet and savoury to keep it interesting. ¤NICOLAS:
Once I get there, I quickly notice that most of the kayakers are fitted out with "competition" gear, they mean business! I start to question whether I will make it all the way. But I quickly come back to positive thoughts: the spirit of competition is about trying your best and having fun doing it.  
After picking up my bib and GPS tracker, we have a meal with all the participants and listen to the latest recommendations of the race director.
We don't stay long and quickly head off to get settled and set up for the night near the starting line. After inflating my kayak (5 minutes), with my identification number 90 stuck on the front right end, and getting my equipment and supplies ready, we spend our first night in our van.  

#3 Day one of the race, we know the course

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¤BAPTISTE:
There are a lot of people at the launch point. The stress starts to build, there is a bit of a wait before entering the water… I put on my spraydeck and quickly head to the start but by the time I get to the bridge, it has already been launched, so I am one of the last to leave. I know all the first section as I did it on a SUP last year but it is nice to rediscover it in the sunshine this time; I almost forget to hydrate myself properly and feed myself.
I end up suffering from the heat a little and I have a bit of a headache, it is now important to keep an eye on the time and keep myself regularly hydrated. After 2 p.m., I take a quick break every 2 hours to stretch my back and legs. The little "rapids" of the day go very smoothly by putting my knees on the side of the kayak, which gives a lot more stability on the water. This kayak is both stable and very easy to handle, while keeping a nice line in the water to keep you going forwards.
At 8 p.m., there are still a few kilometres to go until Castelnaud-la-Chapelle. Safety first! It's time to turn on all the lights provided for this purpose. Paddling in the dark is quite a strange sensation, you get this constant feeling of not going anywhere but I soon get to the end of this first stage.
I decide to stop at the Castelnaud checkpoint instead of going all the way to Siorac as planned. At this point I thought it would be best to rest up ready for the next few days so that I don't get too cold as the coolness of the evening was starting to creep in. Also so that I can recover properly since my left wrist was starting to ache. 

¤NICOLAS:
I turn on my tracker, put it on the front deck of my boat and climb in. I bump into several members of the Itiwit team and we exchange a few words of encouragement before joining the line-up. The race director has just announced that there are 2 minutes to go until the start. I am in the 4th row back so that I don't get soaked. The seconds sail by then the pack of boats is released, producing an impressive slapping sound. It's got to be said that 300 paddles moving at the same time displaces a serious amount of water!
I am familiar with the first 130 km and I already know what to look out for to choose the right channels of water, so this section goes without a hitch. Unfortunately, this was not the case for many other competitors.
I come across Julie, Itiwit engineer competing in the stand-up paddle board relay, and paddle with her for several kilometres. The race will be very long and it's nice to be able to have a chat. I arrive at Castelnaud, the village chosen by the organisers as the first checkpoint and knockout stage since only competitors who arrive before 10 p.m. will be allowed to continue. My wife brings me supplies and reads out some messages of encouragement sent on a Whatsapp group of my supporters; I fit some little lights to the front and back of my kayak and set off to discover the river and, in some ways, myself; I have never paddled beyond the 130 km mark...
Night falls and any tiredness I had begun to feel gives way to the pleasure of being alone on this beautiful night, bathed in the light of the full moon. A group of swans blinded by my light fly away just a few metres from my boat. All my senses are heightened: it feels like I am going much faster than before and now I can clearly make out the sound of the current picking up speed. I love this moment. My peace was only momentarily disturbed by a few hundred mayflies, attracted by the beam of my head torch.
I get to Siorac-en-Périgord. I land, satisfied with my first day on the water, with 147 kilometres on the clock. We quickly have something to eat and are soon off to bed. 

 

#4 Day two of the race, tidal bore in sight

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¤BAPTISTE:
On day two, the alarm clock goes off at 5:30, time for a peaceful breakfast and to strap up some of my fingers before hitting the road—or rather the river—for as far as it will take me. Mentally it's quite difficult because the year before, the race was over by now. But now it's time to set off again, keep going…
The landscape is completely different but just as beautiful. My arms are feeling heavier than yesterday, but I need to get to Mauzac for the first section of the day. The water is much calmer than the previous day as we are getting close to a big dam. A few kilometres later, the Itiwit crew on the prototype x500 2-seat kayak overtake me and I get a chance to have a quick chat as I have been alone all morning on the water. I try to stay in their wake for a few kilometres until I am struck with a cramp in my buttocks. I pull up onto the bank for a quick stretch, oblivious of the fact that I'm only minutes away from Mauzac.
With the first section complete, we deflate and fold the kayak and chat to some passersby. How quickly it deflates and folds up given the size of the kayak sparks a lot of interest mid-race. I laugh to myself because it's true that it really is impressive.
I eat and head off to get back in the water in Bergerac. The kayak becomes rigid again in 5 minutes and I set off in style. I spend the afternoon contemplating the castles and stately homes around Bordeaux; this section just keeps on giving. Once again I keep going until it gets dark but this time I finish at 21:30 having done 250 kilometres since the start. We spend the night on the bank, just in front of a chateau for a beautiful Bordeaux evening taking in our breathtaking surroundings. ¤NICOLAS:
Early doors this morning and I'm on the water by 6 a.m., guided by my front and rear lights and my head torch. Julie launched at the same time, taking over from Adrien, her team-mate. We paddle together for a good 20 kilometres until we reach the Mauzac checkpoint. We have an hour and a half to reach, by road, a launch point downstream of Bergerac some 20 kilometres away. I'm feeling good, I take my time, have some food and even take the opportunity to attend to a nasty blister. That was my first strategic mistake, which was going to cost me. This is because we got lost on the road and an extra hour went by on top of the allocated break, an eternity for me! We should have gone to the launch point straight away so that I could eat and do my first aid there: a good lesson in expectation vs. reality and timekeeping. 
I set back off again and the first few kilometres gradually ease my frustration. My journey down the Dordogne continues without a hitch, although I wasn't expecting to come across as many long flat sections without any flow
I'm getting near Sainte-Foy-la-Grande. Élodie gives me some supplies, I take advantage of the spot and take a long break. I leave again, paddling at a good pace to reach Castillon-la-Bataille, km 260. From this point, the Dordogne rises and falls with the tide. I know that I can keep going, taking advantage of the falling tide until 7 p.m. I get there just in time because I was starting to feel the current of the tidal bore (a wave that travels up the river caused by a powerful incoming tide) for a very short while, giving me just enough time to reach the dock so that I could land. Tired, I have a nice shower at the local rowing club, and drive the van to the vineyards for another restorative night's sleep.

#5 Day three, Nicolas makes it to the finish line, Baptiste still has one more day to go

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¤NICOLAS:
I give myself a "lie in" until 7:30 because the current of the tide is working against me. I get on the water at 9:45 knowing that I will have to paddle for a good hour against the current. My boat, which is very easy to handle, lets me take the best line to counter the current, just a few centimetres from the bank, leaving me just enough space to "plant" my paddle in the water. I have to really concentrate to slalom between the branches and various obstacles in the river. I'm not worried though because I know that the Dropstitch construction of my inflatable kayak is very tough. I'm paddling at a serious pace since I'm neck and neck with some surf ski kayaks, which are built for racing; my opponents can't believe it, amazed by the performance of my inflatable boat
I feel the tide change and I am now paddling in the middle of the Dordogne, several hundred metres wide, riding the falling tide. I reach Libourne. Élodie, who is waiting for me on the very steep left bank, cannot hand me my supplies. She eventually decides to throw them to me—mission accomplished!
My GPS watch is out of memory and leaves me high and dry. I am now without any tracking data. I will have to navigate by sight.
I paddle really fast, with the help of the current that pushes me to a crazy speed, zipping through the landscape. Without the information from my watch, I am unable to identify my location and, as a result, Élodie's next supply point. Time passes, ticking by. I decide to land but it takes me a while to find a suitable spot. I thought I had paddled about twenty kilometres since Libourne. I take out my phone to set a GPS point and, to my great surprise, find I have travelled twice as far: I am in Cavernes at km 318!
For the last 30 kilometres, I am blinded by the sun in my eyes. The Dordogne is so wide that it is difficult to aim for a point on the horizon. The current is slowing down and I can feel that my boat is now much slower. The organisers pull up beside me in a powerful motorboat. The captain tells me the tide will be turning in half an hour. I keep paddling hard but it is not enough to counter the rising tide. My speed is now very low. I am fighting against an extremely powerful current. I'm not going anywhere, I am trapped by force of the water and I can't even make out the rest of the course as in my way is a huge jetty where a large boat is moored that does estuary crossings. I consider, for a very short moment, stopping where I am. I didn't know it yet but the next few metres would be my last before the finish line, which was just behind. I hear cheers, whistles, shouts, and "bravo Nico"! It's over, it's around 5 p.m. and I have just crossed the finish line of the DI 350.
I get out and am immediately congratulated by my wife and the Itiwit teams. I am handed a beer that goes down a treat, before being interrupted to take a souvenir photo with the team. I am delighted and very proud of what I have just achieved. ¤BAPTISTE:
The alarm clock sounds, telling me it's time to do it all again: breakfast, strap up my fingers and wrist, get my equipment ready along with everything else I need for the day and then get on the water. I have "only" 100 kilometres before the finish line, and that's more or less what I had planned. 100 km in a day is totally doable but I will have to factor in the tides and the bore. I pass Castillon-la-Bataille very early in the morning but many have already left . A few of us follow one another for several kilometres until the rising tide catches up with us. The physical and mental fight begins and will last more than an hour before we get out of the water to stop the boat going backwards. Around ten of us get out at the same place because the current keeps getting stronger and stronger.
My wrist is really hurting, the tide won't have helped things but the current is dying down, it's time to leave. I set off full throttle, it's the last day so I give it my all. The landscapes are different once again: castles, mansions, fishermen's houses, etc., but it becomes almost impossible to get out of the water with the effect of the tides. It's just as well that the landscapes are so beautiful, it helps to ease the pain, monotony and solitude.
It is now 5 p.m., I have been following a two-person SUP for an hour and I meet up with my assistants. I'm not feeling too bad, there's 35 km to go but the tide is up to its usual tricks and the bore is fast approaching, so everyone gets out of the water. I'm not too sure what to do, but for safety reasons, I get out too. That marks the end of the day for me, I will not finish the race today. I am both disappointed not to finish on the 3rd day but also happy to be able to enjoy my trip, have a laugh, rest so that I can recover better… It will be a really relaxing evening, this time. Only 35 km to go—child's play!
 

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#6 Final push for Baptiste

I know that I have only 35 kilometres to go but I'm waiting for the tide to finish rising before I start. It will be easier than stopping after a few kilometres. I take advantage of this last bit of paddling to contemplate the final stage of this adventure. I pass the shipwreck and I know that at this point there are not many more kilometres to go. I paddle and paddle some more but I am not too sure where I am exactly. So I take out my phone to have a look at how far I have left and I see the finish line only a few kilometres away. I continue to paddle along the banks but the current is very powerful around poles and big barges. I steer clear as much as I can and then I hear, finally, after a 4-day race, the applause of the finish line… That's it, I did it, and in an inflatable kayak!
My travel buddies immortalise the moment by spraying me with sparkling wine like at the finish of a Formula 1 Grand Prix, AWESOME! I am very proud to have completed this incredible challenge. Nicolas, who arrived the day before, was waiting for me at the finish. A good opportunity to get a nice photo with him. We did it!

 

Video of the start

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