Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Mission Accomplished

This is one of the best things Baymax has ever done! I'm going to do it to my friends from now on. 

I do love me a bit of Baymax.

I am, officially, a marathon swimmer.

Sit down while I tell you a tale...

So. Friday: ROAD TRIP! Rach, Cathy and I headed down to Bala together in my shonky automobile, with so much gear it was ridiculous. We found Patrick at the B&B, then headed out into town for food and to meet some of the BLDSA crew, who made us all very welcome. It definitely helped to settle my nerves a bit. As a first-timer at 10k and a slow one at that, I was a bit worried, but I quickly discovered that BLDSA folks seem to see a swimmer's heart first and not times on paper.

Saturday started with breakfast, and then Cathy and Patrick headed down to the lake first to provide cover for the 1km & 3km races that morning. Rach and I stayed behind to pack our gear for the day and have a good old wobble at each other. I obsessively packed and repacked my bags umpteen times, not having realised my kayak support would need to carry warm clothes for me in case I got pulled out and had to be taken back on the safety boat. DryRobe duly packed into a waterproof bag and satchel of food and drink organised, we headed down to the lake ourselves.

View up the lake from the finish. It's not that far...honest...

Once there, we met up with Rob, a fellow Bear, who was suiting up for the 1km race (and did rather well!). Rob's just as lovely in person as he is on Twitter and although I know now he was lying to me about how lumpy the water was, it was very reassuring to hear it wasn't cold. The temp was something we'd all been concerned about as people had told us over and over that Bala was a cold lake, and given the wind chill we'd had all season at Quays and Trafford, I was genuinely worried about my ability to stay warm for over four hours. In fact Bala clocked in at around 18oC and the finishers from the 1km were in no hurry to get out.

Smiley Bears Rob & Rach

Lunch - or "pre-fuelling" - took place in a blur for me, shoving my traditional apple, flapjack and 9Bar into my face whilst trying to ignore the ever-rising wind. I'd packed the satchel with eight Torq gels (figuring on fuelling every mile or so after the first hour plus extras), Jelly Babies, and two bottles of Hi-5 electrolyte replacement drinks. I've no idea if the latter work, but they were my voodoo charm against cramp. I also packed spare anti-fog, a lip balm, and a drink for Cathy, plus a couple of gels under my cap just in case. Paranoid? Absolutely - I had every faith in Cathy, but not in the strapping down of the gear!

 Here we are pre-10km. 
I look happy enough there but the trepidation was setting in badly by then!

Getting in was easy enough, it really was nicely warm and it took me virtually no time at all to acclimitise. I was determined not to waste time touristing like I had at Coniston last year, so although I'd positioned myself at the back as usual, I got my head down straight away, and spotted Cathy to my right fairly quickly. We'd never practised together, but somehow she knew exactly where to be and she stayed there virtually the whole way up. How, I have no idea.

The first thing I noticed, aside from the comfortable temperature, was the colour of the water - Bala is a peaty lake and somehow that turns even my milk-bottle skin to a delicious golden brown. Aside from that, there was absolutely nothing to see - no weed, no fish, and no bottom. The surface was iron-grey, green to both sides, and a cloudy sky with a few blue patches above. No distractions, which gave me plenty of time to get used to the increasing chop. It was pretty good fun for the first couple of miles, really - more like body surfing than swimming. For once, I had the advantage as a slow swimmer. My stroke was exactly the same period as the waves, so I was able to breathe in each trough rather than take in mouthfuls of water. I couldn't turn to the left, however, as the waves were at an angle and I got slapped in the mouth each time I tried. I really wanted to look for some landmarks on the opposite shore for the return leg, but I couldn't see a damn thing.

At around an hour in I managed a mouthful of my drink, but it was tough to get even that because Cathy's kayak was being pushed and spun by the wind each time. I elected to carry on a bit further as I wasn't really hungry, and being a complete novice with an accompanied swim, assumed the drift was normal. Unbeknownst to me - because all I could see were waves up ahead - disaster had struck three pairs just past the headland, including Rach and Patrick. One pair capsized and righted themselves, one pair called it quits (I think?), and Patrick's kayak seat was found to be defective - he just couldn't get any purchase against a massive squall of wind and so as a fast swimmer, Rach was pulling out too far ahead to be safe. I am gutted for them that they had to DNF for safety reasons, and that my first 10k couldn't have been a joint celebration with one of my dearest friends, but in true Bear style they made the best of it the following day. I'm very glad I couldn't see what was going on as I'd have been filled with doubts and confusion - as a slow swimmer I fully expect to get pulled every time I go out and it would have been baffling to know I'd survived when they hadn't. We were so lucky to have got the good kayak, to have been further behind and closer to the shore. There but for the grace of the lake gods went we.

We paused again after 2hrs for a gel, which was difficult, and I was disappointed to hear we'd covered only 4km. I had really been hoping to be only ten minutes or so off the 5km turn buoy at that point, and I knew under normal circumstances I was looking at another 20-30mins. I'd felt the wind pick up even more as my arms were getting colder, and could see Cathy was having to dig in quite hard to keep straight, but I had no idea how much worse it was going to get. I kicked off the cramp attacking my left calf and ploughed on.

We veered in close to the shore at this point, the sun came out briefly and I had a nice stint in the warm shallows for 20mins or so - near the fence, for those of you that know the course. After that the real hellish conditions kicked in and that last km took forever (40mins, actually). Cathy plied her kayak like an absolute warrior hero - I could see waves breaking over her hull, but she was so fierce there was no way I was even thinking about giving up.

At last the $*)^%*&)££(^ing turn buoy appeared - a tiny orange spot on the horizon, which became a boat, then a little man, then a man laughing as I told him my number and yelled that I was fed up now and which way was the bloody pub?! I groaned as I saw my watch tick over three hours, cramp bit my leg again, and I was convinced the safety boat was about to come over and pluck me out for going over the half-way cut-off. But nobody came - I saw Cathy check in with them, and the rib stayed behind us. I didn't realise, but we took a tighter line out of the turn and Jane & John were now behind us being blown out into the lake in a cross-wind.

The cross-wind bogged us down too, and it took some serious work to keep going into the fourth mile. I grabbed another gel and decided I wouldn't take another unless I got desperate because it was impossible to get close enough to the kayak. So much for keeping hydrated and fed! I know from other swims that 4-4.5miles is my dark patch, and as the rainclouds rolled down the hills to blot out the green I could see Cathy's buoyancy jacket getting soaked, and she was tugging her waterproof up and her Buff over her head. She was starting to look fairly miserable - though I'm told not, it was just taking all her concentration not to get swept forwards - and all of my concern was for her at this point. I was convinced she'd never speak to me again.

Kilometers 6 and 7 were much quicker - we must have got into a better patch of wind - but fatigue was starting to set in. I didn't recognise a damn thing on the opposite side of the lake, my goggles were misting badly, and if I risked a glance to the left all I could see were fields and fields and fields of sheep. I knew I needed to be seeing woodland on that side, which would mean I was coming within sight of the white house at a mile away from the finish. I did shout BLOODY SHEEP a few times under the water! Despite that, and some fairly stark pain in my neck, I wasn't ready to give up. My arms were going all by themselves, so I settled in and sang myself a few tunes, punched the water and counted in Japanese for a bit, recited my yoga mantra sthira sukham asanam (meaning "steady, comfortable posture") and then finally - FINALLY! there was the beginning of the woodland. And there was the safety boat again, shit. I was well over 4hrs at this point and so disappointed and scared of getting yanked out as the 5hr cut-off approached.

And yet, still no "you must finish now".

Hey, wait, is that a flash of white on the shore there?! I managed to yell up to Cathy "Is that what I think it is?!"

"Yep, think so."

"That's a mile to go, then! Fuck, let's crack on!"

Yes, I was a bit sweary by this point.

Then I could just about make out buildings. That must be the end of the lake!

Hey, I can see cars!

I can see the colour of the cars!

I can see the yacht that's docked near the end!

I can see the race controller in her bright yellow jacket!

Oh my god, that's the finish buoy!

Cathy is grinning her face right off! Maybe she doesn't hate me after all!

I'm going to finish. I really am going to finish, and it's over five hours, bloody hell.

Oh! Oh dear god, that's Rach's pink bobble hat just there, thank all the gods, she's out safely. And there's Patrick too!

Oh god, they've got cameras.

I can hear cheering! Where's Cathy gone? Oh, she's round the orange buoy to go in. I need to slap that yellow one and shout 26. I bet all these people are SO pissed off having to wait around in the rain for me to come in last. Why didn't they pull me out?


Oh god, my legs have gone. I can't stand up. Wobble. Cramp. I need to get these earplugs out. There's Patrick waving my Crocs, I should put shoes on. I can hear the kayak scraping.

Oh, this is the biggest hug in the world. Oh, she doesn't hate me. Oh, hell fire, we made it. We made it!

Where's Rach? How long? Wait, what? DNF? But you're ok, not injured? Shit. Shit. Right. Let me get dressed and then I can try and make sense of any of this.

Hang on, there's someone else coming in. I wasn't last?! Flabbergasted. Thought I was an hour or more behind everyone else. Holy crow. Oh crap, my ankle's gone. I can't walk. I need to get dressed and out of this tent so that poor chap can come and get out of the wind!

Oh hey, would you look at that. A certificate and a purple swimming cap with Llyn Tegid on it! 5 hours 23mins 51 seconds. That's SO much more than I was aiming for. Misery. Oh? The wind cost everyone forty minutes, even the speedy ones? That's much better. 4hrs 40 is reasonable, considering I did 8k at Coniston in 4hrs 15 in perfect conditions. Bit of an improvement, actually! Maths later.

Ok. Now I need a hot shower, a face full of cake, a large steak and to find out what the bloody hell just happened...and to somehow find the energy to kayak the length of it again tomorrow!

Here's the GPS trace from Cathy's watch - look how close we stayed to the bank on the way out, and how much we got blown into the middle coming back!
Split times - you can see how much longer it took to get up the lake, and then when I got really tired near the end. And just how quick and exciting that last km was!