Tarn water race 2021 on an itiwit x100

The story of how we
took the plunge and raced down a river in an inflatable!

Some adventures are crazier than others. The story of our first Tarn Water Race
began in May 2020, during a chilled trip down the Ardèche.
It was during the period between two lockdowns and getting away on the water for a weekend
was a great antidote to the lack of events, parties
and socialising.
Sandie Ducousso & Jordan Gamet

Preface -

On the Saturday evening, snuggled up in our sleeping bags on a beach of fine gravel, lulled by the rolling pebbles of the nearby rapid, we started coming up with all kinds of crazy plans. For some, kayaking means an afternoon of sport and splashing around, for us it means slowing down our weekends with endless time to dream and escape. So we're making plans.
Sensible at first, we decide to explore all the gorges that wind through our beautiful region: the Gorges du Tarn, Hérault, Gardon, perhaps even the Verdon. Then came the idea of the Tarn Water Race. We had heard about it a few years previously and so right there and then, on that beach in the Ardèche, we signed up to paddle 78 km in our kayak.
The challenge was intimidating, even seemingly impossible for us, but that's exactly the kind of thing we like.

Fitness, training and last-minute preparations

We are fortunate enough to be well kitted out. Received as a birthday present, our ITIWIT x100 2-seater, in a vibrant canary yellow, has sat proudly in our living room since 16 May 2020. Until now, we had always been recreational paddlers, covering short distances often with an overnight bivouac stop (between 10 and 20 km). The occasional kayakers now had to rise to the challenge ahead. We quickly realised that there was no great secret: we just had to paddle. We started with a decent trip out every weekend (20-30 km) and a short one during the week at our favourite spot, located close to home, the Vidourle. We went all over: the Hérault, the Ardèche, the Gardon, Salagou Lake and of course the Tarn.
Our goal is simple: finish the race. To achieve this we know that we will need to keep a decent pace throughout the 80 kilometres because there are time limits for certain stages. We are realistic about our plans and we also know that our trusty kayak, despite how well it performs, will not be a speed machine in this adventure. In other words, its rounded curves make it top out at a certain maximum speed, beyond which the friction of the water slows it down. As such, during our few weeks of training we worked on finding a good cruising speed and synchronising our paddle strokes to stay in rhythm. A few TRX exercises complement the hours spent on the water and help strengthen our muscles (arms and back).

The highlights of this training programme were our two recce trips of the first 60 kilometres of the race, during which we tasted in the icy water of the Tarn in La Sablière rapids (grade 3) and met Fred, who joined us for our second training session from Rozier down to Peyre, just downstream of the Millau Viaduct.
We gained a good understanding of the course, its features and the portages, plus we received a few words of support from a veteran of endurance events, giving us some reassurance on the eve of the race.

Eve of the race, final equipment checks

Preparation: transforming our Itiwit x100 from peaceful weekend companion to racing kayak.

Tarn Water Race 2021 on an ITIWIT x100

Our equipment 

ITIWIT x100 2-seater with paddle holders removed, ITIWIT carbon paddles x2
Palm buoyancy aids and helmets
Garmin watches to track our speed and manage timed stages
Laminated course map with timed stages and planned completion times
ITIWIT kayak trolley (tested the day before on the road in front of our accommodation!)

PALM transparent dry bag
- 4L water + 2L prepared drink
- Sun cream stick
- Various snacks

- ITIWIT 5L container
- Phones
- Power bank
- GoPro batteries
- ITIWIT repair kit

Despite our rather diligent training programme and the information we gathered from all over, a few questions remained. With or without gloves? Camelback or bottle?
Long sleeves or T-shirt… We decide last minute to stick to the habits we got into during our training.
The route has been meticulously studied and broken down, we know exactly from our average speed (approx. 7 km/h) at what times we should reach the various aid and portage points. Our support crew (my parents) will track us using the GPS beacon provided by the organisers but also using our own beacon directly linked to their phone. We have prepared 4 "bundles" for them to empty into our dry bag at each
aid stop to save us some time.
We arrive on site and go to collect our bibs at La Malène, where we are met with a warm, super-relaxed atmosphere. We exchange a few words with the organisers. We are also reunited with our training companion and we drool over some super-streamlined all-carbon endurance kayaks. A little later, comfortably sat in a charming little cottage nestled not far from Saint-Rome-de-Tarn, we go back over the rules of the race, the course and we double check our lists. We also try out our ITIWIT trolley, purchased earlier that week. After a few trips up and down the road and a few hiccups along the way, it is run in and ready for the big adventure.

Tarn Water Race 2021 on an ITIWIT x100

First stage: saint chély to pas de soucy

3:30 a.m. The alarm goes off and we drag ourselves out of bed. We didn't sleep well, partly from stress, partly from excitement. We load up the car and head to Saint-Rome-du-Tarn campsite (finish point of the race) to
catch the shuttle that will take us 80 kilometres upstream, to the start point in
We are the first to arrive. There's nobody around, no shuttle, no volunteers. It's pitch black and we start to wonder if we are in the right place. After a while, a van door opens and someone confirms that we are in the right location. We inflate our kayak in the beam of our headlights. The
car park fills up quickly, the minibuses arrive, the trailers are loaded and it's funny to see our ITIWIT inflatable strapped up in the middle of the all the racing kayaks. We set off, it's 5:30 a.m.
The shuttle drops us off early at Saint-Chély beach, in the cold of the morning. We
warm up, have a coffee, and wait.

Tarn Water Race 2021 on an ITIWIT x100

8:30 a.m. The start is given. We set off. It's all a bit of a mess, boats are all crashing
into one another and we try not to collide with too many, especially since the river
narrows quite quickly. We reach the first small rapids, hitting the ground running. 78 km,
let's go!
While we find our rhythm, we try to get ourselves in the right part of the river to stop ourselves
from "scraping" the bottom too much. We put into practice of one of our favourite
sayings from our training sessions: the much talked about "river reading". Aim for the downstream V,
which is not always easy to spot in the rapids, don't get caught out by shallow water over gravel,
stay in the fastest flowing bit of the river, stick to the outside bank on bends where the current is faster.

Tips for fellow paddlers of inflatables. Our weight is distributed as
Sandie (55 kg) sits at the front and chooses what line we take. I (90 kg),
the engine, am at the helm, listening (not always) to the captain's
And since I am at the back, I move towards the centre of the kayak as soon as we get
to any shallow bits to prevent us from scraping along the bottom.
This has the immediate effect of ever so slightly bending the kayak in half, despite its HP floor, raising the bow and stern,
where the fins are located.
And just like magic, no more scraping!

Tarn Water Race 2021 on an ITIWIT x100

The cool of the morning quickly dissipates with the energy expended, we get back into autopilot, we are in race mode. The first few kilometres pass slowly, the water level is so low that despite our "technique" we often have to get out to free our boat.
Then the Gorges du Tarn begin to tick by, the numbers on our watches too. Our pace is good, we have mostly managed to stick to our target speed of 7 km/h and we reach km 18 after "only" 2.5 hours.

We get to the Pas de Soucy portage. Nothing to report, except a little water in the kayak. We are well organised: our super support crew drops our trolley off to us, and as soon as our kayak is strapped on we set off running for 1.5 km without stopping for breath. I pull the boat while Sandie carries the dry bags.

One and a half kilometres later, no more Sandie, no more support crew. Buoyed by
competitive spirit, I hurtled down the road at full speed, overtaking a good 30 boats.
At least we know the trolley works, we're glad we thought of it!

We are reunited a few minutes later, the first bundle gets emptied into the dry bag, we run through the standard equipment check, say goodbye to the trolley, and we're good to go. A little out of breath, we jump back on the Tarn, on our way to the next mental stage: the town of Millau somewhere around km 50.

Tarn Water Race 2021 on an ITIWIT x100

Mind over matter – pas de soucy to millau

In this section, there's a little more water and our descent is at first punctuated by a few
rapids and weirs, then it is very calm until the whitewater course in Millau. We dread this part as we found it long and exhausting during
our recce. The meandering bends of the Tarn stretch out as you come into Millau, becoming a succession of long straights that you have to face one after the other. But for the moment everything is OK, we are still feeling fresh, let's take things as they come.
The banks of Pas de Soucy campsite are barely out of sight and we are already entering the village of Les Vignes. There is a weir to get down, a volunteer shows us where to go, we take a decent run-up, brace ourselves and lift our paddles. It's a scrape but we get through! We later realise that we have torn off and lost the ITIWIT x100's front fin in the process, even going so far as breaking the mount.
It doesn't affect our paddling, it just means a trip to the Decathlon repair workshop when
we get back.

Tarn Water Race 2021 on an ITIWIT x100

You can't see the road from the river, it is hidden by vegetation. The scenery of the Gorges du Tarn is fantastic, the sun has finally come out, lighting up the cliffs and warming us up in the process.
Despite the traffic (200 craft, SUPs and kayaks combined), the herons are not giving up their fishing trip and are always just ahead of us, flying away each time we catch up with them.

We are impatiently awaiting the real "big" rapid of the course (grade 3), called "La Sablière",
on which we capsized into the cold April water during our first recce trip.
We hear the sound of water crashing against rock, we ready ourselves.
We are well practised now. The engine needs to be at the front for this so Sandie has to paddle like crazy without worrying about steering.
With this constant speed, it is easier to control the currents of the rapid and contend with them.
I just focus on steering the kayak out of there.

Tarn Water Race 2021 on an ITIWIT x100

So we hit the rapids with good speed, each of us focused on our roles.
The rapid is quite long and forms a sort of S-shape where you need to make a turn and then there's a big rock at the end, which the current tends to send boats straight into. We get to the first turn to see a lone SUP floating upside down.
We paddle with all our might, we fight the current, we brush against the rock and the ITWIT x100 slips through unscathed, with us still on board. Victory! Our feat is applauded by some volunteers and the public who came for the show. We nonetheless have to stop a few metres below to empty out all the water on board and then we set back off very proud of ourselves. We have done 27 km, it is midday.

At km 31, we pass under Rozier bridge, which marks the end of the first official stage and the start of the second. A spray of sunscreen, a quick snack and off we go again.
One paddle stroke after the other, the rhythm becomes mechanical and our shoulders start to ache. No blisters to speak of for the time being, the choice of going gloveless seems to have been the right one. Time ticks by and we make friends on the river. We start to see the same sets of faces in the competitors accompanying us; we overtake them on moving water, they overtake us back on the straights. Initially, many of them thought we were doing the short version of the race, the 18 km.
So they were a little surprised to see that we were still here, and now cheer us on and/or call us crazy. It is obviously quite rare to see a yellow kayak like ours on such a long race!
Kilometre 50: Millau, the light in the middle of the tunnel. But also the whitewater course, a bit of fun and action to break up the monotony of the last few kilometres. We set off under the small bridge that marks the start and then it's 250 m of pure fun. Same technique as for the rapids, this time in a straight line. At each drop, we take on a wave that fills the kayak a little more and weighs it down. Powering ahead, we overtake a paddle board and we go for it, ducking past the poles of the slalom gates. We make it through, we're all smiles but also full to the brim!
We already have 50 km under our belts, a record distance for us. In terms of race management, we're still OK, it's 3:30 p.m., we have more than 2 hours to play with before we hit the time limit. Finishing the race, which for us was a challenge in itself, now feels real and within reach of a
few paddle strokes.


Tarn Water Race 2021 on an ITIWIT x100
Tarn Water Race 2021 on an ITIWIT x100
Tarn Water Race 2021 on an ITIWIT x100
Tarn Water Race 2021 on an ITIWIT x100

Final stage: millau viaduct and pushing for a sub 10-hour time

From here, the aim is to paddle under the Millau Viaduct. Towering 343 metres over the Tarn, it can be seen from miles away and should allow us to cut this final stage in two.
We empty out our kayak on a small beach at the bottom of the rapids and set off again towards
Creissels (Evolution 2), where our support crew is waiting for us with our final supplies.
Just outside of Millau, we spot them. We beach ourselves on the slipway of the outdoor centre, do the standard exchange of backpacks, words of encouragement, back paddle and off we go again.
Our strategy is also based on losing as little time as possible and no or very few stops. We can only go so fast, so we need to spend as much time as possible on the water and paddle non-stop.
We keep an eye out for the Viaduct to loom into view. The river has been a lot calmer for a while now,
wider, and the race becomes a mental game. Finally, at km 59 we see it. Paddling under
it is magical, impressive. A photographer positioned in the middle of the river
immortalises the moment.

Tarn Water Race 2021 on an ITIWIT x100

It feels like the end is near, our arms hurt and our hands are stinging. It's hot. From this point, we don't see a soul: no one in front or behind, we are alone. We went back over most of our usual discussion topics, changed position 50 times, emptied the kayak at least 10 times.
Down an umpteenth straight we hear a horn somewhere near the road through the
trees. Our super support crew is with us now, giving us the energy to go all the way. We pass Peyre, our last known waypoint on the river. Beyond
is the realm of the unknown, both in terms of the nature of the river and knowing how far there is left to go. We still have about 20 kilometres to cover.
Convinced we will see the finish line after every bend, we adapt our pace according
to these successive bouts of motivation. Passing under Saint-Rome-de-Tarn bridge is a huge relief, the final straight is starting to take shape.
In the distance we think we can hear the voice of the announcer. Then finally, behind a big
rock, we see the arch marking the finish line. Boosted by emotion and a final rush
of adrenaline, we draw on what energy we have left, and we begin the final big sprint. We land on the finish beach after 10 hours and 12 minutes of racing!
Speechless, satisfied, tired, we hug each other. We can't believe it, we did it!

The Tarn Water Race was our big challenge for 2021, manageable compared to what we were imagining, but demanding enough to have taken us far out of our comfort zone. Our ITIWIT x100 2p held its ground well, it lost a fin, but didn't let us down in any other way. Inflated properly at the start, we did not need to adjust the pressure of the chambers. Its high-pressure floor provided good glide despite its not particularly streamlined bow. We covered 78 km in 10:12, which works out at 7.5 km/h on average including portages and stops. We still had to stop often to empty it, because it took on water in the rapids. We could have also managed without our support crew since we mainly consumed water and bars that can be stored in the craft, but it was very motivating to meet up with them along the way.
One thing is certain, we fell in love with long-distance paddling. We've signed up for another adventure in 2022, longer and harder this time, but still in an inflatable kayak, the ITIWIT x500, better suited to this kind of challenge. See you in June 2022 for the Loire 725!

Tarn Water Race 2021 on an ITIWIT x100


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