Monday, 16 May 2016

Change of Plan

Stephen Hawking. Smart guy.

So. On Sunday morning I woke up with the very clear idea that I'd taken the Ullswater swim off my mental calendar; that I didn't want to train for a big swim at all this year and I just wanted to do Coniston for fun (preferably a bit faster but eh). I've been rolling the idea around in my head for weeks, but it seemed to have crystallised. I took myself off to Sale for a training session that afternoon and spent a good hour and a half (and 3.6km) in the water at 12-14oC thinking about it. Today I spent about the same amount of time invigilating an exam (one-to-one rather than pacing a roomful of students, which is about as yawn-inducing as you imagine), thinking about it again.

You're not allowed to read or write notes while you're invigilating, but this is what my list would look like:

  • It's the next logical step between Bala and Windermere.
  • It's a point-to-point swim, which I prefer because you're not tortured by the lap-counting.
  • It's only a mile further than Bala, which should be within my capabilities.

  • I haven't found a kayaker I know and trust to come with me
  • I can't afford to stay over so I'd have to drive the distance there and back in the same day.
  • Hazel tells me it's cold; so does Patrick (by cold, we're talking about 14-15C on average), and I can only get to open water once a week, which is usually warmer. I'm not going to build the exposure I need in the pool.
  • My neck, shoulder, elbow and wrist still aren't right - I'm getting better at managing it but I have no idea how far I can push it. Cold makes the RSI worse.
  • I've got this ruddy great run to train for in September; the logistics of fitting the long runs in around the next four weeks of invigilation and then the kids being off for Summer are very difficult already without needing 3hrs at the pool twice a week plus open water.
  • I trained a lot Jan-Mar and I am sick of the pool. Any pool. The smell, the people, the fuss and the loneliness of training in a public session have really got to me.
  • When the kids are off, I have to train in the evenings. That means I virtually never get to spend any decent time with my other half - it's bad enough between his work and my other commitments as it is. 
  • I lose out on other things I enjoy; reading, yoga, making stuff, gaming, cuddling my aged cat. Not to mention sitting down to eat at tea time with my kids, and actually eating decent meals. Last year I managed my Bala training by dint of dropping the kids at home at 6pm after their lesson, then going straight off to a different pool and swimming til 10pm, grabbing a Starbucks on the way home because it was too late to cook anything by then. Not healthy.
  • I haven't improved my speed since last year. Even given perfect conditions, there's no way I'll make 7mi in less than five hours. That's a long time at that temp. Poor conditions could make it more like six and I will get pulled out at that point.
  • Have I said how much I hate the pool?
Big difference, huh. It just doesn't make logical sense to commit to a longest swim this year when you look at that list. The Lakes aren't going anywhere, though. I could do it next year. I could leave Windermere for many years, in fact - maybe when the girls are old enough to look after themselves through the summer holidays. Maybe I could leave it til I've done my black belt. Maybe in twenty years, when I've retired and can train whenever I like! I'm in good health and from a particularly long-lived maternal line; it's entirely possible I'll still be doing silly distances well into my 70s.

Is it giving up, quitting, not suffering through the training? Nah. As the quote above says, it's intelligent to be flexible, and I haven't said I'll never do it - just not this year. I'm not at all heartbroken at the idea; in fact I feel positively gleeful about being able to relax into the swimming season and enjoy a really lovely lake swim in July. I might sign up for some shorter swims in different lakes - I've always fancied a lap of Buttermere, for example. It also takes the pressure off the run training - if I can't get out one day, I can go another without worrying about pool time. Likewise I can be more flexible with karate if necessary and possibly have some other adventures (I really want to go to SUP Yoga again). I can also, hopefully, let my shoulder heal properly, because damn I am sick of these headaches.

The only person I'm racing against is myself, after all, and I'm not going to give myself a lot of competition if I'm bored, resentful, poorly nourished, lonely and in pain.

Monday, 25 April 2016

New Season

Well, it's been a while. I took a bit of a holiday after Bala and as Summer turned into Winter, so my right shoulder turned into a complete mess. I have blamed the weather at Bala for a lot of it - five hours of only breathing to the right can't have helped matters - but I know myself well enough to know quite a lot has been an RSI flare from far too much tablet and smartphone use. I did very little swim training and even less running in Autumn, despite having booked two 5kms and a 10km (which became 5km). Admittedly they were "fun" runs (does that word ever apply to running?) which involved dressing up at Glow In The Park, Run In The Dark and the Man Utd Santa Run, but I was embarrassingly unfit at this point, struggling with stitch and pain in my Achilles as well as my shoulder. I was not put forward for grading at karate in November, either. To be honest I was relieved as I was definitely underperforming.

By Christmas, despite retraining myself into bilateral breathing whilst doing the 22 miles of the Aspire Challenge, I was virtually locked up and in a great deal of pain. I couldn't raise my arms over my head without stabbing pain in my arm, and I was crying into my goggles before completing a mile. I saw my physio, who started the process of unlocking the culprit - my sternocleidomastoid, which was referring pain all down my arm and linking up to the carpel tunnel inflammation already lurking. A team mate took pity on me and exchanged an acupuncture session for cake, lifting the unbearable constant headaches. I've never been so grateful to be stabbed. A few more sessions of physio and suddenly I was returning to swimming form; able to cope with USWIM's indoor sessions and start thinking about the 2016 season.

I dithered a lot and finally set my sights on Ullswater with the BLDSA, a seven-miler - it seems a logical next step after Bala and before Windermere. I've also decided to do Coniston again, but with BLDSA instead of Chillswim - though I loved the 2014 swim, I hear the event has got quite a lot bigger and I'm not a fan of huge groups. I like having my own kayaker. I've yet to book these or find a 'yakker for Ullswater, but I remain hopeful despite a bit of a flare-up right now caused by wearing a wetsuit at the USWIM opener this weekend. I set a new pool 5km PB recently - finally got it under 2hrs by a whisker! so I'm interested to see how it translates to open water.

In the rush of feeling better in January, I did an utterly stupid thing.

Seriously? I entered not just a half-marathon, but the half-marathon? The one that's so important in the family?

I am an idiot.

But I am taking it seriously. That's a lot of money to throw away on not training! I hope to re-crack 10km and beyond this week - I've got good support, great shoes, better kit, I track with Strava and I have an awesome playlist. I had entered a 10km in Blackpool, but it was cancelled so now I'm having a rematch with Great Manchester at the end of May. I hope that'll help me cope with the noise and hectic atmosphere at Great North, anyhow. I can't say I like running yet, but I am definitely becoming more competent and there are moments when it's quite pleasing. It's still more about sheer stubbornness than anything else, though. And I figure if I can conquer a half marathon I'll be in much better shape for karate. I worry about fitting the training in as I'm also in the middle of finding work, doing other work and selling the house, but I will just have to suck it up and get on with it.

Last but definitely not least, I finally figured out heian godan, pulled my head out of my arse and took my purple/white (4th kyu) grading along with Eldest last month. In all honesty I do think it was less punishing than the last one I watched, but I think my fitness has also improved so I was better able to pace myself. I was pretty satisfied with the technical aspects but I'm well aware my sparring needs a lot of work before I'm ready for brown belt. I'm hoping to take that towards the end of the year.

I don't do enough yoga and I haven't kayaked for ages. These things make me sad. On the happy side Eldest represented her school in the local swimming gala and both girls are going great at karate. We've booked Iron Kids again and I'm doing a whole weekend's kayak escort at Bala, too. So lots coming up - but I will be keeping my monthly date with the physio, that's for sure!

Thursday, 30 July 2015

SUP, doc?

Bugs Bunny, the symbole of Warner Bros. cartoons

 Did you know it was dear old Bugs' 75th birthday this week? Me either, but let me take this as an opportunity to dole out a huge load of congratulations to various Bears before I get on to the topic of this post:

- to Sarah, who is both a newly-graduated doctor AND completed Castle Howard Tri (you see what I did there?)

- to Cathy on completing her very first triathlon at Salford despite the horrible weather (bells and whistles much in evidence as me and the kids made some noise for her!)

- to the incredible and redoubtable Sid Sidowski & family who not only completed the full Outlaw Tri on a bloody BMX and in a morph suit!!!! but has, at my last check, raised over £3.5k for Birmingham Children's Hospital. I salute you, sir, you are AMAZEBALLS.

- to our very own Team Bear relay squad at Outlaw (including Rach doing the swim of her life in an incredible 1.02hr) and all of you guys who competed individually and as teams at Outlaw, ThunderRun, Castle Howard and oh god, so many places I've lost count.You're all ace and I'm privileged to know you and cheer you.

Right, ok. Now the reason for the terrible pun in the title.

On the way home from Salford Tri on Sunday, it occured to me that the kids were heading up to stay at Grandma's this week, and that whilst I have more than enough work to be going on with, it's all office hours work. That leaves my evenings footloose and fancy-free, as it were. You know me, if I can get near water, I will do. But I didn't want to "just" swim. And I didn't want to "just" do yoga, much as I'm loving having a more regular practice at the moment. And I wanted to do something more fun than run, though I've just started training again and it's going ok. Maybe I could go kayaking again. I wondered if Cathy or Rach were around for some kind of adventure.

Then it hit me: there's a very interesting little flyer attached to my fridge, from a very interesting and sweet lady we met at Trafford Water Park a couple of months ago.

It means I can get on the water (I do love to paddle!) and I can do yoga. On Tuesday night.

Some very excited emails and texts and Twitter messages flew around, and suddenly Cathy and I were booked onto a class with Magda at loveanddo YOGA to do...

Stand Up Paddleboard Yoga.


Yes. You paddle out into the middle of the lake on an oversized surfboard and then do yoga. On the board. Whilst it's bobbling about in the wind and waves. Need I explain this activity appeared first in nice warm places like Hawaii and California? Not in the North West of England?

I'd never paddleboarded before, but I am getting quite good at standing balance poses - I've been practicing hard after a disastrous session of mawashi geri (round kick) drills a couple of weeks ago, and it does seem to be helping. Eh, I figured, how different can standing up to paddle be to sitting in a 2-man canoe trying to make sure your 9yo doesn't have you spinning in circles? And my Warrior 3 pose is really coming along. It'll be grand.

So Tuesday rolled around and it threw it down. Not quite in IronMan proportions, but enough to be seriously worried that the whole thing would be cancelled. Magda, magician that she is, had assured us the weather would clear after 5pm and blow me down if she wasn't absolutely right. The rain stopped just as I turned off the M60 and pulled into the Water Park. It was still quite breezy - again, not up to Bala standards but at least a Force 3; trees constantly moving, flags out, occasional scattered whitecaps.

Yes, I realise I'm slightly obsessed with wind speeds at the moment, it's a useful skill. Bite me. And make sure you read Loneswimmer's How To Understand The Beaufort Scale.

Just about ready to push the board off and climb on. 
The orange ropes have anchors on for the actual yoga session.
I dithered a great deal about what to wear, having packed my wetsuit, Dryrobe, kayaking gear and my running kit in case I had chance for a lap of the lake afterwards. In the end  I plumped for my UV-protective kayaking top and a pair of running tights. A rather sausagey effect, but who cares: I could move easily and I'd dry out fast if I went in. I like as little clothing bulk under a life jacket as possible, and I would say that was the only niggle about the whole experience - it was quite annoying and next time I'd take it off. But if you're not a strong swimmer and confident paddler, leave it on. In addition, the lake at Trafford does get beautifully warm; I'd guess at at least 22oC in places. But again, it's what you're used to and if you've little open water experience be guided by your teacher and put on a wetsuit if necessary. Cathy rocked up in her brand new Salford Triathlon t-shirt and a great big grin - no wetsuit required to keep her warm!

I actually look quite competent in this picture...
Cathy and I were joined by another two women, and we had about 15mins practice on the paddleboards. The paddles were a bit too short for standing up and it really was quite windy, so mostly we knelt, and when that got too much for me I sat cross-legged like a happy little Buddha. We got blown right down the lake when we all tried standing up and almost had a run-in with the same fisherman we'd upset the second time we went kayaking, but Magda got us all turned around and headed back up near to the main building. It was a little wobbly, standing up, but I quickly found my balance and got to know the board's centre. At this point we really struggled to get anchored - the bottom of the lake is thick with weed and mud and fairly shallow just there - but eventually the five of us were settled and ready to begin.

We started with calming and centreing our breath, just like any yoga practice. Then some cat-and-cow poses, which were a great way to get a feel as to how the board moves as you move. Some waves did splash over a little, which made lying down poses a bit damp, but I also picked up a tiny caterpillar who did some rather good poses of his own!

 We even got some sunshine!

Downward Dog felt great straightaway and within a few of these transitions I felt very much at home on the board and in no danger of falling off. Then we moved on to Sun Salutations, which I'm familiar with but aren't part of my usual practice. They involved quite a bit of standing up and getting back down again. This was no problem in terms of balance, but it did take some concentration to make sure my hands and feet were going back onto the board in a centred way, especially since the boards appeared to be actually windsurf boards and you had to be careful not to sit on the slightly sticking-up bit for the sail!

 Not sure why my board had drifted so far forwards there, but don't we look good!

One of the huge selling points for SUP yoga is that you're forced to be absolutely in the moment all of the time you're out there. There's no space for your mind to wander off into making shopping lists or wondering what you're going to have for tea, and there's definitely no room for fretting about whether your bum looks big in this. So if you have trouble switching off from daily life whenever you try yoga, this is one way to stop that. A little extreme, perhaps, but a superb way of breaking out of a rut.

Taking a Child's Pose and feeling peaceful

So is it hard? Well, everyone will vary depending on their experience, but I can honestly say that once I'd made peace with having slightly slower, more deliberate transitions (no bad thing), I really didn't find it any more difficult than land-based yoga, only having trouble with Half Lord Of The Fishes because seated twists are hard enough for me anyway without a life jacket on (and the irony of that pose name in the face of Trafford's giant catfish myths is not lost, believe me). In fact both Cathy and I agreed that there were points where we both completely forgot we were on a paddleboard. The wind and the waves, and the sound of the trees (and ok, the sound of traffic on the M60); the blue sky and scudding clouds above (and yes, the pylons and cables); the sunshine and the scent of the warm water, plus the odd honking goose...these added a completely different dimension to my practice. Especially from upside down! I honestly can't think of a better way to finish a session in savasana than lying with your fingers and toes trailing in the water, looking up at a blue evening sky. It may not be Hawaii, but it's still beautiful.

I definitely want to go again. It's expensive for a session (or at least for me, who earns very little!), but if you're an "experiences over things" person, this is one to savour.

SUP Yoga class was provided by Magda at loveanddo YOGA (@loveanddoyoga on Twitter and on Facebook) at Trafford Water Park. Sessions cost £25 and run at Trafford, Salford Watersports Centre and in Liverpool. I was not paid to write this post or given any written content to add; many thanks to Cathy and to Magda for the photos which were shared freely.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Repetitive Cowbell Injury

Even if your fingers are falling off and you've no voice left, every bit of support is worth it.

When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of weekends at rugby league matches and out marshalling motor racing. I thought I knew a bit about what supporting a sporting event entailed. I'd done my fair share of shouting at sweaty, muddy men and picking up the pieces (literally) when it all went pear-shaped out on the circuit.

It was nothing compared to what I experienced at IronMan UK. It's Thursday night as I'm typing this and my voice is still squeaky from screaming. My fingers are still bruised from the cowbells. Emotionally I've had a hangover for days; Rach did warn me but this was several orders of magnitude greater than I expected. I've talked through what we did at least a dozen times - everyone at school wanted to know why I was squeaking like Beaker from the Muppets - and I just can't seem to get through to people outside the Tri/Endurance world just what was so amazing about the day. I mean, what kind of twisted person:

- gets up at 4.45am

- stands in a biblical rainstorm in a DryRobe for several hours, holding a dripping flag and squinting at wetsuited nutters to find six people out of 2000

- then moves to a wind-blasted car park, still wet, and being battered by said soggy flags, to try and spot six people jumping off bikes and running past

- moves to a hugely crowded town centre, holds out this sign:

Embedded image permalink 

...and proceeds to scream and cowbell not only at the six people in 2000 she's looking for, but everyone else that gets a laugh out of that sign too, for more than six hours

- stays til the last man is virtually carried across the line and blue-lighted away before his name even comes up on the screen, and then waits for the poor guy that isn't going to make the cut-off well after 11pm?

Rach, that's who. 

Yes, yes, and me too. Neither of us have any voice left! It left me speechless in more ways than one. I have never seen so much grit. Never seen so much courage. Our Bears & friends all came through beautifully, from the so-fast-we-missed-him to the last man home at over 14hrs. It was superb to see our kit out on the circuit, and heart-filling to see the faces of our friends light up to hear us. It was hilarious to have made so many people giggle; to point and shout "YOU! YES YOU, YOU ARE A GORGEOUS AND AMAZING HUMAN BEING!", and then see those same people actually looking for us as they came through on their second and third laps to ask if they were still gorgeous (yes, they were). I can't describe the rush on hearing the commentator shout your teammate's name and the magical phrase "YOU. ARE. AN. IRONMAN!"

So yes, we had a really fantastic day out; it was well-organised, accessible, and ran like clockwork. I'd recommend it to anyone.

I took home something really important for my own head, too. I spent a lot of time watching the run leg particularly, and what I saw were, admittedly, mostly middle-aged white men with a small proportion of women. Aside from the pros (who I didn't really see as they were too fast!), every kind of body shape was on display. Tall, small, built like a whippet, built like a rhino. People that looked like they'd been gazelles in a previous life, and people who honestly looked like they wouldn't be able to tell one end of a bike from another. People so slim they were cold in wetsuits at 19oC, and people who were barely getting into the neoprene. People whose bellies wobbled. People whose boobs were travelling many miles more than their legs were (both men and women!). 

And yet every single one of them could swim, bike, run 140.6 miles; and it didn't seem to make a difference what shape they were. There were as many people who "looked" like athletes struggling as there were people who "looked" like they lived on beer and cigs who made it all seem easy. Body shape was not a predictor of success.

Not one of those people let their body shape dictate their lives.

How amazing is that?

I didn't realise how important it was for me to have seen that until I got dressed into "smart" clothes for school on Wednesday morning. I rarely look in a full-length mirror, since the only one in the house is in the kids' room, but I'd got a new top and wanted to check it out. And my first thought on seeing myself was "This is not a fat body any more. This is a strong body. This body can do all sorts of things."

Yes, I'm still pretty overweight. I have a spare tyre I can't shift and may never get rid of. My stats are all in order, which is reassuring. But having done what I've done, and seen what I've seen...I'm not going to let any fears about that wobble bother me ever again. It's never stopped me taking part, because I'm bloody-minded like that, but I won't deny the churn that's gone through my head every time I change for training, or the six weeks it took me to pluck up the courage to buy shorts for running. That's not going to happen any more.

Thanks, IronMen. From the bottom of my bum. I would say my heart, but my bum is bigger! :D

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Iron Kids

Reckon she enjoyed that?!

It's not often I post pictures of the kids - I try and keep in mind that the Internet never erases anything - but it's impossible not to be proud of these daughters of ours and share the happiness they got out of IronKids this weekend. We took a gang of five children down to Bolton on Saturday - all kids of Team Bear members - and they ran in their various age categories, having an absolute whale of a time. IronMan UK did them proud - a proper medal, great t-shirts, excellent safeguarding and the whole red carpet, big screen, commentator and finish line experience the adults would get the following day. It was a truly well organised day; everything ran spot on to time despite there being 2,500 kids to wrangle, and every member of staff gave the kids as much respect as they would give to adults. Even when Youngest and I ran just after 12pm, the warm-up people were just as lively and encouraging as they had been when we sent off our first runner at 9am.
Small one grinning her way down the red carpet, with Mummy in Team Bear kit.

The kids themselves got a lot out of the experience. As far as we know they were the only ones from their school who took part this year, so they were delighted to go in on Monday and show off their medals. Eldest, who's run cross-country a few times this year and been dubious about running on grass, has decided she loves road-running. She's now very much looking forward to getting started on our training for Glow In The Park Manchester in October. Youngest had a tough start, rapidly being left behind the pack and struggling with pain in her legs as she started off, but she's a fit little bean really. After some encouragement from me she found her feet and we smiled and ROARED all the way home.

Us grown-ups discovered the joys of cowbelling and just how useful it is to have a pair of Team Bear flags in a crowd. And yes, we took every opportunity to get those flags noticed! I also discovered, idly chatting to a few dads in the warm-up pen, that word of how awful the weather was at Bala has spread. It really is a small community and there were a few open mouths on hearing just where I'd done my 10km. So that was nice. I'm always amused when people are horrified at long swimming distances when they can do such amazing things themselves. Tri people really have such a different experience in the water to distance swimmers. 

So that was IronKids. I think we'll be back next year!

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

How Far We Come

“I’m So Proud of You.” | tidak.semua.setuju.

In September last year, the week after I completed Coniston, I finally managed to talk Cathy into coming down to Salford Quays for a dip. I remember very clearly how quickly the delight set in for her - barely half a lap and she was desperate to get the wetsuit off. Well and truly bitten by the bug, and I watched in amazement as that wetsuit never went back on again all winter. She trained like a demon, and when I booked Bala 10k she not only agreed to kayak for me but booked the 5km on the following day on the understanding that I'd return the favour. She also bribed me with cake to take on Great Manchester Run, but that's another story.

In the pub on Saturday night, post-mortem analysis swirled about my head, trying to figure out what went wrong with Rach & Patrick's swim, and what we could do with the Sunday session. We found out others had been hit by the hard winds, and Patrick negotiated (after much stress) with the kayak hire manager that they would supply us with not only a free - and properly checked - kayak, but a free kayaker. This gave Rach the opportunity to swim the 5km herself instead of supporting Patrick, so that she could still put the training miles in. Her 10km had been intended as not only a first marathon but as a training swim before she takes on Windermere in September, so it was essential to get at least something in the bank despite her post-crash injuries and the weather.

By breakfast the following day it was all set up; since we were unsure if she'd be able to find a kayaker for herself or be allowed late entry to the event, she decided to set out ten minutes after the main race so as not to interfere with the start. Bala is the holy grail: a lake which you can swim in at any time. So she was completely within her rights to strap on a tow float and follow along. However, when we reached the lake a brief discussion with BLDSA folks provided not only a free kayaker but late entry to the event. I can't thank them enough for making it possible for us all to complete a swim this weekend. Luck is a big part of every swim and every OW swimmer knows it, but it is an absolute bugger when it happens to you. Being able to pick up at least some pieces made things a lot better.

We scrambled to get ready. Picking up the kayaks from the finish, we hauled them onto a boat to be taken up to the public beach; then followed them in Patrick's car, leaving mine at the finish. When we arrived we started to strap on the Flag Alphas (a pennant you must display when you escort a swimmer so other lake users are aware) and suddenly realised the kayak hire place hadn't provided a buoyancy jacket for me. Patrick and I whizzed back to collect one and made it back to briefing just in time, dumping our dry gear with Patrick's uncle to be ferried back to the finish (how we'd have coped without Graham this weekend, I will never know. What a star).

I honestly had more trepidation at this point than I'd had for the swim because I was a total novice at guiding and my head was on backwards, it seemed. We were setting out from the far side of the lake from yesterday, I hadn't a clue where I was and would have had Cathy swimming in entirely the wrong direction. I was amazed by how well I felt, too, but worried about whether my shoulders would object to a couple of hours paddling.

Seemingly within seconds of getting back, I found myself clambering into a bright yellow and green kayak, which promptly developed a fault - one of the D-rings securing the seat snapped as I tightened it. The poor chap from the kayak hire place went white, knowing what we'd experienced yesterday, and immediately offered to switch boats. So I unstrapped all our gear, loaded it onto his boat and was out on the water before I knew it. I didn't get chance to wish any of our three swimmers luck; I hadn't the faintest idea who was wearing which cap (because that's all you can see from above the water!), and I absolutely failed to realise that although the wind was as strong as the previous day, there were nowhere near as many clouds and I was going to be out on the water in strong sunshine for upwards of two hours. I'd got a UV-resistant long-sleeved top on, but only running capris on my legs. Eh, never mind, I thought, my legs never burn. And off we went.

I picked Cathy out almost straight away - a bright yellow USWIM cap kind of gave the game away - and I was looking about for Rach and Patrick when Rach virtually swam underneath my kayak! I couldn't see Patrick at all. The field began to clear, leaving us with two swimmers breaststroking out to the first buoy across the lake. The safety boat tootled along behind. I worried. It wasn't cold, but I could see Cathy was taking longer to acclimatise than I'd expected, and once I'd talked her into getting her head down, she was veering left and away from me as the wind pushed me down the lake to the right. You can't run herd on someone if you're on the inside of the course, and I discovered very quickly how impossible it is to attract a swimmer's attention.

Eventually we made it to the turn buoy and it was much easier to keep in the right position. I suddenly recalled Cathy describing my 6th km yesterday - the wind changed the appearance of the water so much that it looked like we were going nowhere at all, like swimming on a treadmill. I remembered she had said she'd needed to look at the landscape to make sure we were making any progress at all. We were, but I was rapidly finding out that I was going to spend most of my afternoon paddling backwards to stay on station with her as the wind was pushing me forwards so hard.

She looked strong and confident, and I could see an orange kayak up ahead of us, so I began to relax a bit about keeping us on track. The landscape slipped by, as did a yacht and a few windsurfers. The safety crew nodded and waved, and I glanced down at Cathy's GPS which was strapped to my wrist (she had my Poolmate in the water). Oh shit. The battery's gone and I have no idea what time it is, she wants a feed at an hour. I waved to the safety boat: "What time is it?"

They waved at the sun. "Don't know" came the reply. Oh hell. Well, at least they're not stressing about cut-offs!

I struggled to get her attention. "Battery's gone! What time do you have? Do you want a drink?"

I'd tied her water bottle on a long string to my ankle. It was damn near impossible to get close enough to give it to her, a real struggle. She refused a feed, wanting to crack on. At a guess I'd say we were about 45mins into the swim and making reasonable time. Her pace and stroke were beautiful, so I let it go and tried not to worry about the wheels coming off. The wind was really strong by now and most of the time I was gratefully paddles-down, not having to do much work at all. I had a picnic of Jelly Babies (since I hadn't managed to have any yesterday!) and a bit of a sing-song, and the fields of sheep passed by. My kayak obviously hadn't been drained properly the night before and so my bum was absolutely soaking, but all in all I was having a jolly nice time of it.

We checked in again after maybe half an hour or so and again, Cathy didn't want anything, so we ploughed on. The wind changed direction, so I began to try to herd her over to the shoreline to get some shelter and a tighter line on the finish. This was extraordinarily difficult and I eventually found the only way to stay close enough was to turn broadside on and let her swim at me, then back-paddle a bit to bring her more to the left. I could see the orange kayak having similar problems, and then they disappeared from view. But there was the white house already! I cheered, banging my paddle on the hull to get Cathy to look up. Big thumbs up from both of us, and I watched the land take shape much as I'd seen it from the water yesterday.

I knew two-ish miles was Cathy's longest training swim so far, and as we entered the last mile I watched her carefully for signs of fatigue. I'd been told my own stroke had stayed absolutely crisp and metronomic all the way in (thanks to loads of training with Dave at USWIM over winter!) and I was hoping she'd be the same as it really does help to prevent injury. Her hand position was a bit flat and tired, but otherwise she looked great still. I was absolutely beaming. If I squinted hard I could see Rach's pink bobble hat on the jetty, with a Patrick-shape behind her, and I was cheering again - everyone was out safely and it was up to me to bring Cathy in now. We sailed through the last beautiful stretch of water and out came the cameras.

Here she comes!

Where's the bloody buoy?!

It was an awesome finish. I beached the kayak as quickly as I could and unstrapped her DryRobe off the back, virtually throwing it at Patrick to get it round her. Huge hugs. All the tears. So proud I could burst. How far you've come, my friend.

And then we were all there, hugging and screeching and being thrilled to bits that despite all the weather, all the trauma, all the we were. Swimmers.

There were certificates, and getting wet gear off and getting warm and filling our faces with cake. There was dumping the kayaks, and whizzing back up the lake to get Patrick's car, and more cake at an impromptu picnic. Then the long drive home, dropping off Cathy first, then back to mine so Rach could collect her car for the even longer hike back to Bradford. There was curry, and lots of ibuprofen. There was the discovery that my legs were blazingly red with sunburn. Monday there was physio, and the joyous news that all my pain is simple work, no injury. I got away with it again, it seems.



There was - and is - the satisfaction of a job bloody well done. For me, my A race is done - all of my A events this year, actually - and now I'm on holiday from serious swim training until I pick a new target (shutupshutupshutup I am not doing Windermere). I need to shift focus again, up my game at karate and see if another grading might be in the frame this year; and get my feet back out on the pavement as I've got another 10km run booked in November. I've got work to do on this year's Aspire Challenge, since I'm not just swimming it in September, but promoting it too. 

For my Bears, I've nothing but pride and admiration. Whether it was your first 5km or a walk in the park, the way everyone pulled together and came back from horrendous conditions and adversity to clear heads and complete the swim was just amazing to me. It's everything sport and teamwork should be about. Next weekend we're at IronMan Bolton, cheering on the next generation of Bears at IronKids and providing support for fellow team mates for the full event. It's what it's all about.

Love you guys. Thank you.

Here's Rach's write-up, and Patrick's two posts for Saturday and Sunday.

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!