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 pain...here 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.