The memories of the supermaraton Budějovice-Praha and my first strokes with Vašek Dolejš
My classmate Ruda Flégr brought me in the 1950s to the emerging canoe club in Pardubice at the age of 16. The beginnings in the club were marked by the political situation in our country. The dictatorship of the Communist Party has been established, all former social and sport organizations have been broken, the borders of the country were closed and watched.
The activity in the new club of about 12 members, led by Honza Kopecký, the successful canoeist of the previous generation, and former owner of the nationalized printer, began in the former clubhouse of the abolished water scouts. There were no boats and paddles. Everything depended on our effort and capabilities to obtain the things we needed. We built semi-tourist boats ourselves with the help of older friends and especially the former canoeist and shipbuilder Václav Hendrych, whose carpentry was also nationalized. These modest conditions did not derail us from our enthusiasm about canoeing, rather they were a challenge to intense work and then intensive training. Since 1952, together with my partner Vašek Dolejš, we have begun to race on remarkable level in the junior C2 category.
The year 1953 was our first year in the senior category and began with a surprising 4th place in the national 50 km marathon championship (Slovakia, Váh, Lubochňa – Žilina). This success, achieved on the slower type of C2 (2 min behind the winners, and we had to empty the boat twice) directed our effort to succeed also in the race Budějovice-Praha. We did not know much about this race and the river Vltava. We only read that it is the longest, oldest, hardest paddling race in our country. To support our mission we had a first racing C2 of the shell structure from the new manufacturer Sport Modřany. The time of the race was another political disaster. Just before the race, a monetary reform was announced, in which all citizens lost their savings. Our budget then were enough for a train trip to the start with the canoe, for one lunch and for one overnight stay before the start. We did not have to worry about the competitors during the interval start at the swimming pool in Budějovice. In the 50km race, we dropped all of them. But we were afraid of weirs with unknown passes built in ancient times for the wood rafts. For them, the weirs have been ok for centuries, but how can we get it on a thin C2? During the race, it is not time to stop in front of the weir, to check out the passage and to choose either the best path to pass or rather to portage it. It takes a long time and you will never get back on the water. There were eight weirs in the day one to Týn. We portaged some of them, did not break the boat, but finished fourth. On the day two after the start in Týn, we portaged all three weirs. We have safely managed next 14 km with five weirs and dropped all our opponents. Then we hit the weir Dolní Lipovsko at 14.8 km. The height of the weir was only 1 m, but the waves passed through the wavebreaker and the boat was full of water. Before we jumped off, we hit a stone and there was a long crack on the side. We had no repair kit, and we could only wait long time for our competitors to arrive. At the end of the day, a collection car arrived for us. A sad trip to Pardubice followed while the canoe went for a repair to Modřany.
Our second attempt to win Budějovice-Praha took place in 1956. At that time, we were members of the club of sports representatives of the Army Central House in Prague. The year 1956 was the olympic year, and our preparation was directed there. However, the performance did not come to us and eventually no czech C2 was starting on the Olympic games. In addition, there have been significant changes in the army sport environment, as well as the cancellation of the Army Central House and changes in the conditions of the sport representation. In this situation, we decided to end with a top canoeing, go to civilian, but at least this year to win Budějovice. The preparation for the race consisted mainly of a boat preparation. At that time, short C2s were commonly used and we had the Danish Struer. There were only two of them in the country. Compared to czech types this one was more sensitive, lower, and especially harder. In order to keep the direction better, we had a raised keel up to 8 cm from half the length. The boat adjustment for Budějovice consisted of a raising the lubes and the front cover.
Friday, stage one
The start of the 24th year of the race took place on Friday, August 29, 1956, traditionally at the swimming pool in Budějovice. There were a total of 70 boats and 110 competitors at the start line. The most numerous categories were traditionally C2 in three performance classes followed by K1, K2 and folding kayaks. The first stage finishing in Týn nad Vltavou was 36 km long and there were 8 weirs, 7 of which were open for shooting.
For a better view of how the Vltava river looked those days and what obstacles the competitors were encountering, I am attaching a detailed description of the course and weirs. The start number drawing did not go well for us. We had a number 1 in the C2 category. The start was in intervals and the opponents were able to watch what the weirs would do with us in the passes, and act accordingly. We had to take a higher risk as portaging a weir would be a great loss. The first weir of 3.5 m just after the start caused no problem to us, as well as the second named Suchomel 1.9 m high. The third weir of Czech Vrbné 2.24 m was a horror. In 1953, we respectfully portaged this one, but this time it was not possible. Competitive C2 Polesny-Fuka from Budějovice certainly knew how to shoot it. We passed the pass, but even the raised lubes were not enough for the high waves below the weir. We poured water to the floordeck, perhaps 10 liters. We did not see a suitable place to land and empty it, so we finally decided to empty the boat on the Hluboká weir, 4.8 km away, which was closed according to the course instructions. However, the instructions were flawed, the retarder passage for the 2.15 m high weir was open and easily accessible. No suitable place to land and empty the boat anywhere and we did not want to go to the deep water. We were too much self confident and paddled further with water in the boat through three other weirs for a total of 20 km to the weir in Hněvkovice. There we got a crisis and strange thing happen to us. After the portage and kneeling in the canoe, we were caught by the dying competing C2 Polesný-Fuka. Polesný in the front with the canoe in his hand was so exhausted, so he could not stop at the edge of the shore. Fuka in the rear took another step and Polesný fell into our boat and into the river. He stood there, unable to move, while we had a canoe full of water, had to go out to shore and empty it again. Before we did so, Fuka drew his partner out the water, they both jumped in and left 50 meters ahead of us. There were four endless km of paddling of two totaly broken couples. After crossing the finish line, I wanted to get off the canoe in shallow water. My legs cracked, and I just sat in the water watching that Vasek was able to get to the shore with a canoe and eat there. The trip to the nearby hotel was above my limit. Eventually my dinner was also beyond my capabilities. Even though the table was rich, I was able to eat only a few spoons of soup. When I tried to cut a chicken, I had succeeded with the first bite in my mouth, but I did not have the strength in my jaws. I tried to bite with a hand resting on my lower jaw, but it did not work. After the shower, completely without food, I immediately fell asleep. For the competitiors this was a clear signal – we are out of play.
Saturday morning 7 am, start of the stage two
The morning’s early awakening was trouble-free, and I had a good breakfast while we used that time to determine tactics on three weirs located directly in Týn. Yesterday we finished 2 min 30 secs behind Polesný-Fuka and we did not want to offer them another chance to increase the lead. However, passes were low on water, especially the first one. The possibility was to cooperate another participant from Pardubice, kayaker Jirka Šebek, who was racing in category K1 ahead of us. It seemed to us as almost impossible to shoot these three weirs in the given water level, but “Šebega” wanted to show off himself. He started in front of us as one of the last kayakers and we were ready to start watching his fate. “Šebega” reached the edge of the pass, jumped in, disappeared, immediately appeared again and paddled on. He repeated that on the second and third weir. That was enough for us, tactics were clear. We started and jumped into the first weir pass. A terrible blow was heard. That was how the keel on the back of the boat hit the concrete threshold on the floor of the pass. I looked back to check the damage, but nothing could be seen and the boat was not leaking. In 300 m we were in the second pass, for another 300 m in the third. Passages were no problem, no water in the canoe. We did not see anything significantly bad on the boat, it was just difficult to keep the straight line. We paddled hard 12 km followed by the passage of the two weirs of Kořensko and Nový Mlýn. Complications occurred at 48 river km at Rejsíkov weir (few km after). Just above the weir, we noticed that the pass is open on the right. We tried to arrange our way into it, but we did not get the right entry point and path. A high wave came into the boat over the risen lubes and we swam immediately as well as our paddles, refreshments, other equipment, and a canoe was turned upside down. At that moment, we saw what had happened to us in Týn. The 8 cm tall keel was gone across all its length. We lost it on a concrete threshold. That’s why the canoe behaved like a snake. Fortunately, there was not so deep water beneath the pass and a shallow water was nearby. We quickly managed to jump into the boat again and no competitors came to the horizon behind us. We managed the remaining 16 km and 6 weirs to the stage finish in Červená without a complication with the significant lead after two stages.
At noon, we had the opportunity to examine the damaged boat and see how the course was for our rivals. A repair of the boat was not possible. Damaged keel was drowned somewhere along the route, and the new was in Prague. But the main thing was that the boat was not leaking. Our competitors Polesný-Fuka had bad luck this day. At the first weir in Týn they also jumped into the pit. The thin shell of their boat at the keel in the back was not so strong and cracked about 25 cm in length. On the other hand they had an equipment allowing them to fix it and continue in 16 minutes in their pursuit race.
Saturday afternoon 2 pm, start of the stage three
The result of the morning stage in which we safely got to the lead in the race in front of the pair Polesný-Fuka, also determined the tactics for the afternoon 46 km long stage. Our shared handicap was the damaged boats and the limited possibility of passing weirs. We could not risk the high weirs that we did not know, and eventually the opponent couple skipped their shooting.
The opportunity was well recognized by the third couple in the ladder, Baďura-Janů, our team partners from the club with an undamaged boat.
At the beginning of the stage, we traveled 5 km to the beautiful red stretch of Červenské streams. We did not hit any stone and with a considerable lead we reached the weir in Letošice at 77 river km. The height of the weir 2.7 m ruled out an attempt to try the pass in the middle of the weir, so we went straight into the standing water of the long channel to the power plant. As we then carried the canoe to the main stream, we saw with fright in the eyes in the river stream our club mates Baďura-Janů. They risked, shooted the weir, and were quickly disappearing in the fast flowing river. Everything at the moment was different and we lost our leadership. We were shocked, jumped into the boat, and started a pursuit race with utmost effort. The distance between us could be 1.5 km, and it only slowly became shorter. Suddenly, we saw an unreal change in their ride, coming to the shore and pouring out. We were increasing the pace to the extreme and we reduced their lead by 500 meters. After about 10 minutes, the situation was repeated. We did not understand it, but we liked the fact we were close behind them. At the third repetition and when we overtake them we learned that they have grasped a pin on the weir and they it has made a hole into their boat above the floor in the front. The frontman tried to seal the hole with his shoe. They had no repair kit, this was something only Polesný-Fuka were carrying. It was a relief for us, we were again at the front of the race, although there were still 30 km and 6 weirs ahead of us. We paddled in a brisk pace to the destination in Kamýk at the last rays of the setting sun in perfect comfort.
The mood of the evening and dinner was not as good as it should have been. There was a new problem. 110 km of paddling during 30 hours made its trace on our palms. At first my blisters began to appear on my fingers. Of course, they poped with another paddling. The second, far more painful phase was that underneath the blotched tissue in the blister spot, it started to form a thrust bearing. Bandages, patches, tapes were not helping. Gripping the shaft of the paddle with the lower hand was literally a misery. However, the pain was alleviating during paddling, so the best was to hold the paddle tight. Allowing your fingers to release the paddle meant repeating the misery. Vašek had a blister on his upper hand that I had never seen – over half the palm. Of course, he was ripping him down and surely was enjoying that. It hurt us, but compared to the yesterday’s evening we were ok. Now we were only waiting for the dams, we believed we were physically in shape, and with our advantage we could just go tactically.
Sunday morning, start of the stage four
The start was apparently in Kamýk and the race continued along the Slapy dam lake. Our lead was sufficient enough to allow us to continue freely after the interval start, to wait for the competing boats and take advantage of washes in a group. I remember the vain attempts of the Polesný-Fuka couple to drop us and their dissatisfaction that they can not sit on the wash behind us. Struer without a keel really went zig-zag like a snake.
Sunday afternoon, start of the stage five
A comfortable ride in the group ended beneath the Vrané dam. The chief race judge Boža Karlík, forged Communist, a board member of the Czechoslovak Sport Association, and I do not know what else, banned the ride in the group using a speaker from the accompanying vehicle. What had to obey, and the last comparison of the power began. Of course, we wanted to be the first in Prague, but the others as well. The target was 12 km ahead of us. It was a struggle like for a life. The result was good for us, we were the first at the finish line with comfortable gap.
After the prizegiving ceremony, the accompanying race doctor asked me to document my palms with the latest news-color photographs. They were really terrible.
Complete results can be found in the czech section of our site.
And what can I say at the end of my remembering at my age of 70, 48 years away from the penultimate 24th year of the race? It was a great idea for our paddling ancestors to organize this race on a river full of natural beauty. It was beautiful to ride along the route of the old wood-rafts and tried their passes. The race itself was my hardest sport test of endurance and will that I pursued in my life. It stays in my memory and still helps me succeed in other sporting competitions. It is a pity that the race and the river have permanently disappeared for the new generation of paddlers.
Přemysl Dušek, 24. 5. 2004