At the beginning of Kingdom Swim 2012, I thought to myself, here is my chance to make the greatest single improvement in my entire life. Where most people improve, year to year, by a matter of minutes… I knew my time would be less by – at the very, very least – an hour. Secretly, I was determined to make 6 hours, which would be better by an hour and 43 minutes. I had reasonable confidence that I could do it. And I determined to myself that that was what I would try. But I told everybody 6 1/2, because it was safer.
It’s so happy, standing on the beach, watching people come and go and getting ready. Aaron, my brother and stalwart kayaker for this excursion, and I were in rare form, laughing and joking. Plucky, the faithful kayak, was ready, too. I could feel his excitement and anticipation growing.
In the back of my mind, there was one hesitation. Aaron. He was not an experienced kayaker. And didn’t know a thing about open water swimming or swimmers. And I had reasoned to myself that he would be okay. He would be fine. But the truth of the matter was, I had slapped him into this situation like I would use duct tape on a gaping, bleeding slash across my arm. It was not a good fit. He was not prepared for this and had little idea of how to execute it well – even with a swim we had done together earlier in the week. He was armed with little more than love for me, his sister. That’s okay, true love conquers all, right?
Don’t be a freaking moron, Bethany.
So when we started off, I was pleased that he was right on the money, and doing very well all the way up the lake. He told me I was doing great, he kept me well fed and watered, timed my sprint segments and he seemed to be tracking straight, when I spot checked him. We were off like rockets, I had already left people behind me – THAT never happened last year!
Last year, my roster number was 9. This year, I was number 8. I was so excited when the first person I passed was number 9. How appropo! Let’s get this thing done!
I was making the turn across the lake leagues ahead of last year. It was ridiculous how fast I felt. Even when I wasn’t sprinting, I was focused on going fast, on being efficient, and on making every moment count. I was singing songs with good beats that kept me kicking steadily in rhythm.
“…all the ducks are swimming in the water… fal de ral, de ral da!”
I made myself smile. Occasionally, as I turned to breathe, I would sing and Aaron would smile, too.
But as we began to cross the lake, I began to feel the wind pick up or something about the water change. I was being pushed, by the kayak, I think. I asked Aaron if we were drifting. He assured me we were not, the buoy and corresponding houseboat were straight ahead. I looked over and realized, though, that another swimmer and his kayaker were holding a straighter line off to our left. I switched sides with Aaron, sighted the buoy, and set myself toward it directly. I watched Aaron drift away from me and was sure I had made the right decision.
We pretty much continued the next four hours of the swim in much the same manner. I would sight the buoy, or simply remember the course from last year, or visually reference the map in my mind and fall back on my pilotage skills from flying to navigate – reading the wind direction and the water, tracking the shoreline, anticipating the buoy location. Aaron drifted away, would come back, and then drift away again. Sometimes, he would fall behind me. Those instances were vaguely reminiscent of the Torture Swim in Ireland. I would sing Rocks and Water to myself and be grateful it was not cold and that I was getting Perpetuem.
Poor Aaron. In his defense, he was a bit preoccupied by the waves that picked up… and on the water that was slowly filling up the kayak. He didn’t inform me that he was having a difficult time or that the kayak was filling with water. That was nice, because all I was going to be able to do was worry about it.
We passed a buoy and Aaron fell back again. I kept swimming. I looked around for him after a couple minutes, when he didn’t catch up. I turned back to see him next to a boat, using a red Solo cup to bail out what must have been water. In the seconds that it took me to realize what was going on, the kayak flipped.
Oh my God! I thought. Plucky!
Aaron will float, he’s got a life vest, I reasoned. What about Plucky?! Will he be okay? And I sprinted back to them. Aaron was frustrated, upset and angry. I came up to him and just smiled as we clung to the kayak, treading water, and collecting our belongings as they floated around.
“I’m never kayaking for you, again,” Aaron declared.
I thought to myself that that was probably true, but not for this reason. I shook my head at him and kept smiling, “Aw, Aaron, don’t let it get you down.”
The guy in the boat called our trouble in. I was preparing to tell him that I was finishing this swim, with or without accompaniment, and he had another thing coming if he thought I wasn’t, but he told me he was trying to find another kayaker for me. I thanked him… and just kept smiling. The last guy I had passed, who was swimming quite a bit slower than I was, wasn’t too far behind. The guy in the boat left us to go back to them and be sure that I could swim along with them while we got this sorted out.
We continued treading water and collecting belongings. Plucky rolled over, like a dying fish wallowing in agony. I dove underwater to see if anything was sinking and watched as my banana went drifting off into oblivion. I laughed.
Yes, we have no bananas, I thought to myself, referencing a wonderful book I had read, Young Woman and the Sea.
We rolled Plucky back and lifted him up to drain some of the water out and try to put some stuff back in. I don’t know that it worked, but it was something to do.
The boat came back and he pulled Aaron up. I handed the guy my stuff, piece by piece. He informed me that I could swim with the slower folks just behind me while he tried to find me another kayaker.
“Or maybe,” I said. “You guys can just get everything dried out and we can keep going.”
Both Aaron and the guy in the boat seemed surprised at this idea. Aaron had had defeat all over his face up until that moment. I guess he didn’t think he could continue. I smiled farewell, thanked the guy in the boat and turned to meet with my new crew.
Then I realized I was hungry… and I had nothing to drink. Just keep swimming, Bethany. I met up with the kayaker, who said his swimmer, Simon, had nick-named him Sunny. I smiled – thinking I was in good company!
“I’m Bethany!” I said.
“Hi, Beth!” he replied.
Oh… the storm clouds descended on my soul as my Irish reared its violent and angry, ugly head. Settle down, Bethany, I reasoned with myself.
“I’m Bethany,” I said again, annunciating every syllable, still smiling – thinly.
“Hi, Beth,” he replied… AGAIN.
Oh, what Ireland’s torture swim and 10,000 jellyfish could not do… that guy sure did- worming his way under my thick skin! My name is BETHANY. Beth- ANY. Don’t call me Beth. Bethany is
better… it exercises all your smiling muscles, and makes you feel happier when you say it. Bethany, Bethany, Bethany. See?
But I put my head in the water and kept swimming. Don’t let it get to you, I thought. Don’t let it get to you. Keep smiling. Keep swimming.
But now we were swimming slow… and I was hungry. In fact, I had felt hungry for almost all of Kingdom Swim. Maybe I ate my breakfast too early? I don’t know. Whatever – I knew I would finish. I was sad that I wouldn’t be back in the time I wanted, but I was going to finish. We were swimming so slow, I got a bit ahead and then had to stop and wait.
“Everything okay, Beth?”
“I’m just waiting,” I replied politely, despite the swear words and evil plots that played out in my mind.
It wasn’t too long until the guy in the boat came back, with Aaron and Plucky. They got back in, got situated and soon Aaron was back at my side. I asked him for something to drink. He still seemed down and preoccupied. I sang to him and he smiled, briefly. Then we were off again, side by side… until he drifted away… again.
I was starting to feel defeated now. I didn’t know if Aaron was paying attention to the time any more, he was very distant – not just physically, but he seemed off in thought, too. I was left to my sighting and my own devices. I felt sure I would not make it back in the 6 and ½ hours I had told everybody I would make it back in. I didn’t know how much time I had lost and to get my momentum back was awful. I was worried, too, because the waves were still pounding against the kayak. Aaron was probably taking on water still.
At this point, I had a decision to make. There was never any doubt of my finishing. Never. I always finish. But it was up to me whether or not I was going to keep fighting. I could still work hard and keep going as fast as I could and try and finish strong. Or I could let myself be defeated, just zone out, go to my happy place… and still finish.
I was not going to quit working, I determined. I was still going to go fast. As fast as I possibly could! And I was going to still sprint! So I went back to the music and the rhythm and the energy. I felt sluggish after all the treading water… but I was going to try!
My back was hurting, and every time I lifted my head to find the buoy, all I could think about was my back. I began to dread sighting with that muscular quivering that comes when you know that something is going to hurt before you do it. My shoulder was just dully burning, as it had been throughout the swim. I remembered the advil I had seen drifting toward the bottom of Lake Memphremagog and I frowned.
David will have some Advil, I thought. Just get to shore and ask him for some.
The thought made me feel better. I kept going. Aaron didn’t let me down, he still gave me my sprint and feeding signals. My sprints weren’t much of a sprint. My hard work felt hard and little else. But I was determined to continue despite everything. I was going to go. Go. Go. Go!
Be the grape and go! I laughed at Miss Catherine’s text in my head and snuck a sighting while I was giggling, thinking I wouldn’t notice.
Then we were to the last buoy. Look at that! THE LAST ONE! HA! Maybe I had made up some time. It didn’t feel very late… maybe, maybe I had been faster than 7 hours. I must be! The chute was still up, after all… there was still a finish line to cross! I made it back before the finish line was taken down!!!
I decided to sprint to the finish. Fast as I could go! Pretend it’s France, Bethany. France! So I did… and I realized that for the next two years, I will always be swimming to France. Some delirious part of me in the back of my head felt a bizarre fear – as I was coming into the finish – that Ned Denison would appear, yelling at me that it wasn’t good enough and I had to go back out and sprint back in again.
Obviously, that did not happen. I was fine! And found the shore and ran up smiling and proud to a time of 6 hours… and 25 minutes!!! I had done it! I had beat the time I had told everybody I would finishin, even with all of the shenanigans and troubles! I forgot about the pain in my back and my shoulder and stood there, basking in the triumph of my accomplishment.
So maybe, maybe you will always finish. And maybe that was last year’s lesson, and this year’s is to keep fighting (…and maybe that duct tape doesn’t fix everything). This is how we build; on the lessons we have learned and with the tools we have earned from those trials we have already faced. Don’t mistake a downturn for defeat; keep going and not just to finish- but to finish well.