Bled - The Weekend

I knew Bled was going to be a good weekend as it kicked off with a police raid on the flats opposite while I waited to be picked up by Richard and Mandy at 3.00 in the morning. Another startling discovery was that Richard had only bought hand luggage and not much at that. No fleecy jumpers, no padded toursers with annoying straps when you wanted to go to the loo which was frequently. In fact Richard was lucky to be allowed to remain in Bled at all, padded trousers or not. His room had been booked in the wrong way - not only did we not have vouchers, a crime for which the receptionist dealt with us most severely but Richard’s double room had been booked as if two people were staying in it when there was only one! The receptionist met her match with Margy - a joy to behold. Mandy and my two single beds were so close we could have held hands all night if we’d had a mind.

Team hats were issued. I love hats. I am rarely without one. But three bobbles really pushed me sartorially. “Don’t worry” said Mandy “we’ll just wear them poolside.” Complete rubbish - I wore it day, night, in the disco, and I’m wearing it now. They are beautifully warm when worn in combination with another hat and so distinctive that you only had to look up and spot a team mate a mile off.

The first afternoon was spent registering and orienteering: around a large plate of meat and potatoes and also something rather distressing and unidentifiable possibly soya; a large glass of dark beer; and finally the lake. This involved walking past the very uninviting dark pool with limited exit points. We were later to see that if your lane had no exit ladder you could extend your stay in the water and swim both under and over lane ropes to get to a ladder or be manhandled out in a rather ungainly fashion. The first evenings group supper was in a lovely restaurant discovered by our trail blazers John and Jenny, where portions were both more manageable and more recognisable. There was allegedly much dancing of questionable quality by Russian men at Club Stop later on in the evening which I was sadly unable to witness as I was dribbling into my pillow by 9.30pm. Happily I was able to sample the local liqueur at a later date. It tasted like a mouthful of old christmas tree. Not unpleasant but you had to be there.

The first day of competing loomed. Breakfast was a welcome distraction as was running the gauntlet of capture by the Head Bread Roll Monitor stationed just by the exit. Any embarrassment on capture could be overcome by shoving the offending food item in ones mouth and eating it there and then. Or by running out of the dining room very fast.

I cannot remember a great deal about the actual swimming as I was so petrified I thought I was going to cry. Also as is widely acknowledged to be the case in cold water swimming, the preparation and clear up took so much longer than actual time in the water. I remember being faintly dismayed that I had got into the final as it meant repeating the whole process which was deeply draining both physically and emotionally, particularly the frequent visits to the portaloos (2 for each sex). I quickly learnt not to fasten the strappy bits on my dungarees or to put my swimming costume on completely under my warm clothes as this led to tears. The changing rooms quickly deteriorated into a rather grubby mixed-sex free-for-all and the sauna was overwhelmed by Russian teenagers who seemed to be using it as a dating venue. The Finns dominated the heads up and the Latvians were tenacious in the front crawl.

Competition days have now blurred into memories of raucous flag waving and cheering on, Jane Fondaesque warm ups, exquisite bladder control and absolutely refining the art of dressing and undressing whilst maintaining maximum warmth and minimum dampness of outer clothing. Modesty was long forgotten as the male and female finals backed up against each other. Ellery, Jim and Sarah Jane from Norway combined elegance with practicality. I understand why the long duvet coat exists, especially if it has a bit of fur around the collar.

The first day’s medals were given out in the dark. The second day’s medals were given out in the light but the majority of competitors thought they were going to be given out in the dark and were therefore absent. The organised trip to the castle may have been interesting to the front row of people who could see the ‘entertainment’ but I doubt it.

The true cold water swimmers, not to undervalue the other competitors and medal winners, were the large body of club members who came to support and swim at leisure and length in the icy waters of Lake Bled of an early morning. I am in awe. The only thing that got me in the water was that it was a small price to pay for a whole weekend away and of course one of those two very good looking commentators telling us to take off our clothes. And of course the Endurance race -the highlight. John Cunningham Rolls gesticulating frantically to swimmers as they veered off course in brain addled numbness; heroic swimmers hauling themselves out after 450m of icy slog only to be wrapped in rather nasty brown blankets and our very own Mike who completed the course in 11 minutes and danced the night away in Cub Stop (why not Club Start?)

Relays and multiple photo opportunities were taken on the last morning, including a rather fetching one of us all outside the sauna? The Russians, once they’d managed to extricate themselves from the sauna , proved themselves to be invincible relay swimmers. Though there was one team, I can’t remember which nationality whose number two entered the water and got out again, refusing to swim, thereby making their relay rather onerous to complete. We said goodbyes to the other competitors we’d struck up a rapport with - I never did make my Latvian rival crack a smile but the Finnish man with the large nose he bashed into the pontoon was very jolly. Travel stories were swapped on the way home and back we flew out of our little cold water bubble.

It was an extraordinary and exhilarating weekend. My jaw ached from laughing and shouting and of course talking in a normal voice. Without the swimming there would have been no focus and yet there was so much more. Roll on Latvia and long duvet coats with a bit of fur trim on the hood that you can unzip to make a nice collar.

For a comprehensive list of supporters, competitors and medals please read Margy’s article in the Swimming Times or January’s poolside Newsletter.

by Nicola Malin