“Sweet home, Alabama!” Gary croons, belting it out across the water.  Ken, not to be outdone, throws his head back and howls at blue sky, “Carry me home, to my friend!”

“Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall!” I screech, interrupting both of them in a hideously out-of-tune warble.  They look at me, startled out of their duet.  I shrug.

“I don’t know the words to anything else,” I say, apologetically.

We are about 8 miles into a 26-mile paddle across Lake Memphramagog, and to any casual observer, all three of us have lost our minds.  I have just met Gary and Ken this morning, at the start of the Jay Crossover in Magog, Quebec.   Discovering our paces to be similar, we had decided it would be more entertaining to paddle together rather than separately.  Now, a couple hours later, it feels like we’ve known each other forever.

“Ok, who’s got a joke?” Ken asks, probably desperate to prevent me from singing again.  I am no more a singer than I am a paddler.

“What’s red and sits in a corner?” I ask.  Ken and Gary shake their heads.  “A naughty strawberry!” I shout, trying to drown out the groans.

“That’s worse than your singing,” Gary says.  Then he yells, “Ramming speed!” and charges the nose of his touring kayak into the back of mine.  I give the expected response, a swift wack of the water with my paddle, sending a three-foot spray back on Gary’s head.  Then we send paddle wacks in the direction of the race rescue boat, which has been following us for the last half hour.  “Come pick us up!” I shout.  “We quit!”  It’s about the third time I’ve said this.

Then Ken says, “I think I see the aid station!”  We strain to follow his line of sight.

“I think I see it too!” I agree, spotting a race volunteer on the concrete boat launch ahead.  Within twenty minutes, we are pulling gratefully into Bryant’s Landing.  Mark, a race volunteer I knew from the previous year, helps us out of our boats.

“How far ahead is the leader?” I ask him.   Mark laughs.

“I wouldn’t worry about that, if I were you,” he says.  Translation: he’s so far ahead of you I wouldn’t want to embarrass us all by answering the question.

“How are you feeling?” Mark asks, handing salted potatoes and Gatorades around.  Shaking the kinks out of our legs, we respond enthusiastically.  So far, so good.  Personally, I had expected things to get painful almost immediately, given my lack of experience.  I’m really here for the marathon tomorrow and the mountain bike race on Sunday–registering for the Crossover had been a last-minute gesture of bravado, inspired by the race director’s encouragement.  I only hope they won’t have to send a rescue boat to get me off the water before dark.

Three hours later, during the ten-mile stretch between aid station two and the finish, the long-anticipated pain begins to set in.  A light wind whips up the water and gives us waves to contend with, and my paddling muscles begin to ache.  One of the volunteers at aid station two had given us a quick paddling lesson, reminding us to use our core muscles and to punch outward with the opposite hand.  Stuff I knew, but never seemed to get the hang of.  Now my shoulders hurt, a reminder of my own poor technique.  Gary and Ken refuse to let me wallow, however.

“Who’s got a new joke?” Gary demands.

“I’m all joked out,” I complain.

“Unacceptable answer!  Ramming speed!” Ken paddles furiously toward my boat.  I laugh, weakly.  These guys make it impossible to be in a bad mood.

3:00 p.m.  Seven hours into the race now.  Storm clouds are gathering above us and we begin to paddle harder, hoping to make the finish before the rain starts.  We can see the shoreline ahead, the city buildings of Newport, Vermont.  We’ve finally crossed the border from Canada to the U.S., or at least we think we have.  Border officials, by prior arrangement with the race director, will check our identification at the finish in Gardner Park.

“Paddle faster!” Ken shouts as thunderclaps roar over our heads.  We comply, but ten minutes later, the skies open.  The rain is blinding, at first.  We can barely see through the thick sheets of water.  My face stings.

Then, as quickly as it started, the rain stops.  Sun peers from behind dark clouds.  Ahead, we see the bridge that we’ve been told to paddle under to reach Gardner Park.

“Land ho!” Gary shouts.  We shriek at each other, jubilant.  Another duet breaks out between Gary and Ken.  Having promised not to torture them anymore, I howl like a dog instead of singing along.  Pedestrians on the bridge stare down at us, startled and bemused, as we paddle underneath their feet.

The lake becomes a river, winding through green fields, and then we see the JAY CHALLENGE banner stretched across the water.  Volunteers on the river banks clap and cheer as we pull in.  It is eight hours after our start and we’re finally finished.  We maneuver our boats slightly in order to cross the finish line in unison.

“I might not be a paddler or a singer,” I tell my new buddies as we climb out of our boats.  “But that was a blast!”

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