…and no, I’m not talking about the rain.
This coming weekend I’m doing my first ‘adventure race’. It’s kind of like a fun triathlon with a few hours of trail running, a few hours on the mountain bike…and an hour kayaking the River Avon.
On a river.
My relationship with water has not always been a happy one. I’m embarrassed to admit that my swimming ability doesn’t extend beyond a very splashy variation on front crawl, which I can sustain for approximately one length of your average hotel pool. I know I should do something about it…especially with all the peer pressure to try a tri…but why anyone would purposely enter a medium designed to kill them is beyond me.
Trying to kill you? Yep, that’s right, water is deadly…and I should know, it’s tried to finish me off twice.
When I was 4, maybe 5, we were visiting friends in Leamington Spa. I don’t remember much about the day, I expect there was I Spy during the car journey, I imagine we ate ice creams at some point, what I do remember is feeding the ducks in the park. I learned a valuable lesson that day, one I want to share and which has become something of a mantra for me…
“When feeding ducks at the lake, let go of the bread”
If you don’t, you follow the bread in to the lake.
Eyewitness accounts agree that the splash was substantial, the panic instant and my reaction totally instinctive. Apparently I turned in the water like Shamu at Seaworld doing athletics, adopted a convincing doggy paddle and spluttered my way back to land where a nice old man used his walking stick to fish me out. I’ve been assured he didn’t use it to push me back under a few times, that’s just my twisted memory of a terrifying event. The torment didn’t end once I was back on terra firma, because of the smell of stagnant water now emanating from me I was ordered to walk several paces behind everyone as we returned to the house. We probably took the most direct route, but to my mind I was being paraded through the streets of Leamington as an example of sodden stupidity. To cap it all, when I was finally dried off I was forced to wear someone else’s pants for the journey home. Oh the shame.
Swimming lessons followed at school, but I never got the hang of putting my face in the water and to this day I can’t stand it. When I was 12-13 my entire summers were spent at the lido in Cheltenham. I managed to spend months playing in and around the water without ever swimming more than a few strokes. I’m not sure anyone ever noticed, but my enjoyment of the pool rarely went beyond playing catch in the shallow end. Throughout my teens and twenties I managed to avoid water, that is until I joined the annual canoe trip…
I had a successful first year. Sharing a boat with Natasha we eased our way down the River Wye, part of an 18 boat procession. There was lunch on the river bank, a stop at a pub and minimal splashing. Thoroughly enjoyable and laid a few demons to rest.
Year two though, that was a different story.
Long story short (unlike this post) my confidence was up, my canoe partner was a bloke and we were drinking red wine from the bottle whilst we paddled. We’d forgotten the very important warnings we’d been given, taken off our buoyancy aids to avoid tan lines and through a mixture of idiocy and brute strength rolled the boat in the fastest part of the river. I was downstream, with a canoe filled with water (which apparently means it weighed a tonne) repeatedly smashing me on the head and forcing me under. It seemed like an eternity before my feet found any purchase on the river bed and I was able to slow the movement of the battering ram/boat and it took all my strength to ease it towards the bank, where I threw up several litres of dirty water and lay for a long time revelling in the solidity of the dirt beneath me.
I’ve had a few near death experiences. This was by far the slowest, most terrifying, and most mentally damaging.
So, on Saturday I get back on the water, on a sit on kayak, on a river, and I’m scared.
Don’t tell my team mates, but I don’t think we’re going to win.