Last week I packed my bags and headed to Argentina expecting to compete in an 88km river race. What I experienced was anything but what I expected.
The Maraton Hernandarias-Parana is one of the most famous marathon swims in the world. The race starts in the village of Hernandarias and continues down the Parana River, passing through a few villages along the way and ending in the city of Parana. At 88km it is the longest swim marathon race in the world, and it is one of a handful of professional swim marathons in Argentina, held on consecutive weekends. The Argentine people hold the sport of marathon swimming in high esteem, and every year anxiously await the arrival of the “Nadadores,” marathon swimmers from all over the world. It has been a dream of mine to compete in this race for the last few years, ever since my friend and marathon swimmer Erica Rose told me about her experiences competing in the race.
So late last year, with USA Swimming’s blessing (under the condition I also take a USA Swimming Certified Coach, a regulation introduced since the investigation of Fran Crippen’s death) I applied and was accepted into the race. I was elated! It was if all of my dreams were coming true all at once. I asked International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Inductee Anne Cleveland to accompany me as my coach. Next thing I knew I found myself boarding a bus in Rosario, Argentina headed for Parana where I was welcomed by a group of swimmers, race officials, journalists, and marathon swimming fans.
After a whirlwind week of race preparation, rest, appearances, a 2km sprint race, and trips to the pool, the swimmers and coaches were bused two hours north to the village of Hernandarias where we were escorted by police to the starting point, a large pontoon boat on the river. What we found in Hernandarias after a long week of beautiful sunny weather was torrential rain and high winds. During our lunch on the pontoon, a particularly bad patch of storm hit and the sound of breaking glass erupted as the high winds blew over glassware and the large 5-pane glass sliding doors right off their tracks. In the blink of an eye the Dutch and Croatian coaches caught the falling doors and held them against the force of the wind until the restaurant staff lowered the storm shutters. Their instantaneous act of heroism is forever burned into my brain, and thanks in part to them no one was injured in the incident.
At this time a feeling of doom washed over the group. The weather forecast for the next day was not promising. The river had been turned into rapids, and with the high northern winds it began to appear to run backwards. Waves were cresting and there were 3ft+ swells. One Argentinian swimmer, who has done the race numerous times, proclaimed that he had never seen the river like this before, and there would be no race the next day. We waited until the rain subsided to board the buses and head for the country cottages where we were spending the evening. I tried to get on the “Banana Bus” where I had left my swim bag and race supplies, but when we got to the bus it was full and Anne and I and a few other swimmers and coaches were forced to take a later bus. I thought that most certainly my stuff would be unloaded out of the bus by the other swimmers and coaches, so I did not worry. We waited for another thirty minutes, and when no bus arrived, a few villagers graciously offered to take the remaining swimmers and coaches to the cottages. The race organizers encouraged us to take them up on their offer, and after a short 10 minute drive, we arrived at our remote location, and found that the electricity was out, and that my swim bag and race supplies had not been unloaded from the bus, which was now gone. I was panicked. Here I was finding myself without even a suit or a pair of goggles the day before my first professional marathon! Due to the language barrier I never really found out what transpired, but one of the Argentinian coaches assured me not to worry and got in touch with organizers who then tracked down the bus. An hour later they returned to drop off my bags.
The cottage was a bit of a surreal experience. We had not access to transportation, and absolutely nothing within walking distance besides the grounds of the property, which was home to emu, chickens, turkeys, pheasants, and peacocks. We had no laptops and our phones didn’t work. In my cottage it was Anne and me, the Croatians, the Dutchmen, and the Canadians. There were two bedrooms with bunk beds and we split them between boys and girls. We spent the day napping and chatting, and this group of people ended up becoming the best friends I made on the trip.
We had been told to bring as little as possible to the cottage in Hernandarias, and left the remainder of our things in storage back in Parana. Other than the equipment and supplies for the swim, we took almost nothing, only the necessities. By the next morning, we were hot, sweaty, somewhat dirty from the rains and mud, and all I really wanted was a shower. We later joked to Silvina, the Swimmer Liason, that the purpose of our stay in Hernandarias was just to make us WANT to swim 88km down the river if for no other reason than to get back to the hotel and take a shower. As I brushed my teeth in the morning I thought to myself “this is the cleanest I’ll be all day.”
As we ate breakfast, we kept our eyes on the weather. Much to our dismay, within a few minutes the rains and winds blew in, and we took shelter in the farmhouse for a bit. Soon the bus arrived, and we loaded up and headed for the starting point. As we drove through town there were people standing on their porches and in their yards waving and cheering as the bus drove by. Once we arrived there was a crowd of spectators cheering and waving. The had their cameras and phones ready and asked frequently for photos. There were a few times when I was asked to hold someone’s baby for a photo and I felt like a politician.
Once we boarded the pontoon, the name of the game was to start preparations and hope for the best. We put our suits on, got number, applied sunscreen and greased up. The spectators seemed sure that we would have the race, but the swimmers and race organizers feared the truth. Although the advertised start of the race was 8:30, the decision to cancel or not was set to be made at 9:00. It rained a little and was a little windy, and the worst clouds were off in the distance. I really wanted to believe that we could head off and make it, but the truth was that it was too long of a race, and covered far too great of distance to try and out swim the weather. Reports came in that the weather in Parana was worse, and that the South bound wind was forecasted to swim directions to a headwind four hours into the race. FINA finally made the decision to call the race (rightfully so) and everyone, included the spectators and the mayor of the city was disappointed with the decision.
Once the race was called we hung out for another three hours waiting for a bus to come from Parana to pick us up. The restaurant on the pontoon pulled out an impromptu lunch, and I got a little bit of sleep (very welcomed as I had only been able to sleep 2-3 hours the night before). When the buses arrived there was one large one for coaches and a smaller one for swimmers. It had begun to rain again and the sun roof leaked the entire gloomy trip. We were told we were being bused to the second town on the course to see if we could start there for an abbreviated 60+km race, or depending on the forecast, possibly a 22+km. On Anne’s bus, there was a lot of back and forth discussion about what to do next. About an hour into the trip one of the race organizers on our bus received a phone call. The gesture he made as he hung up was unmistakable. The race was completely off, and I was probably the most devastated of the group, as I was one of the only newcomers. Later I spoke with this man and he told me that he felt terribly for me and that he couldn’t get the look on my face out of his mind when he went to bed that night.
Once we arrived back at the hotel it seemed as if everything was going wrong. One elevator was broken, the other one’s handle fell off when I went to shut the door. The keys they made for us wouldn’t work in the door. The Croatians went to their room to find someone sleeping in it. There was no hot water in our room. I lost (then found) my cell phone. We were told to meet in the Lobby for a meeting, but the time kept being pushed back. We found out that the Head Official was having a hard time getting back to Parana for the meeting because the winds had changed and she was on the lead boat (which, along with the support row boats, had tried to boat to the new starting point, but found they could not make it.) For the rest of the day Anne and I kept saying “It’s a swearing kind of day.”
That night at dinner we were finally able to hold the meeting. We were told that they would hold a Sprint race of about 5k the next day, weather and river depth permitting. The new course was held entirely in Parana, and was only slightly different than the sprint race held on Friday. We would be circumnavigating the island, so a portion of the course would be against the current. It was no longer a FINA event, so no FINA points would be awarded. The prize money had been reduced to less than half of what it was for the marathon. When the prize money was announced, it was split into three categories as it is for FINA races: women’s race, men’s race, and overall race. After some discussion, it was pointed out that due to the fact it was no longer a FINA race, there need not be an overall prize money category. The women in the room lobbied for the overall prize money to be divided evenly between the men’s and women’s race, and the race organizers agreed. This was one of the high points of the entire trip, as this practice essentially guarantees that the top three men are paid twice for their efforts as the women are paid only once. It was a victory against a antiquated and discriminatory practice. The race was scheduled to start at 4pm the next day.
Luckily I slept well that night and had a very low key early part of the day. We ate breakfast, I warmed up at the pool, we ate lunch, I rested and took a short nap, and it was time to board the bus. Once we arrived at the beach everything moved very quickly and changed into my suit and got numbered. We were told to head down into the river and I began wading out. The river is very silty and the river bottom is so muddy that every step I took I sunk down in it. I started swimming as soon as it was deep enough to warm up a bit and to find the starting point. There was no gate or any designation of a starting point, but the men in boats were shouting instructions in Spanish. Up until this point there was always someone on hand to translate, so I began to get very frustrated that THIS would be the moment I was unsure what was going on. I shouted back “No hablo Espanol!” but they just continued to shout in Spanish and point. The swimmers began to congregate so this was my best clue to what I was supposed to be doing. As we were waiting for the start I began shaking my competitors hands and wishing them luck, assuming that I would have some warning before the gun went off. I was shaking Spanish swimmer Ester Nunez’s hand just as the gun went off, and she let out a little squeal and then the race had begun.
The race was very short, lasting around 40 minutes. The current was strong and before I knew it I had already reached the island. I fell behind the main pack fairly quickly, as I had simply come unprepared to sprint a 5K. For awhile I was neck and neck with Vanessa Garcia of Argentina but began to pull ahead until I was leading her 20 meters or so. My crew in the row boat were excellent and very engaged in helping me succeed. I was surprised by this, as I had assumed that the boaters would be secretly pulling for the Argentinian swimmers. I was confused at how much Anne and the boaters were signaling me to swim closer to the boat and then immediately signaling me to move away from the boat, until I realized that there were quite a few hazards (such as tree branches) on the course.
I had planned to increase my speed when I rounded the island and try to use the adverse conditions to pull ahead. I rounded the island quite beautifully with a few corkscrew strokes and hit the current like a wall. I tried to increase my stroke rate but found that I still didn’t have a higher gear. I was swimming in the shallowest water I could where the current would be weaker, and my arms (I’m a strait arm swimmer) were hitting the weeds with every stroke like a weed whacker. I got tangled twice: once in a plant and once in a wire of some sort. I was scooping mud with my hands on my underwater pull. Anne began signaling me that I was losing rank. I glanced back and saw that Vanessa was gaining on me quickly. Frustrated, I tried again to increase my stroke rate, to no avail. Vanessa was really going after it and managed to go around me, and I took the opportunity to draft for awhile and save some energy.
After a few minutes of drafting off of Vanessa I began to feel stronger. The pace started to feel too slow so I tried a few times to go around her, but it was a very tight squeeze and I was wedged between her and her row boat. I decided to be patient and wait for my opportunity to pass. My cap had begun to slip off but I swam on anyway, knowing that I needed to wait to adjust it until I was again swimming with the current. We got to the end of the island where there was supposed to be a buoy to turn. There was no buoy but the three boats (my boat, Vanessa’s boat, and another “helper” boat) were enthusiastically signaling us to follow them. Again I decided against making my move, instead staying behind Vanessa and sighting off of her and letting her do the hard navigational work. At this point, I saw another boat drive by with the buoy in the back. Later I learned that the men’s winner, Trent Grimsey of Australia, had gotten caught on the anchor rope and the buoy had broken and begun to float away.
Once we turned the invisible buoy I knew it was time to make my move. I stopped quickly to pull down my cap a bit and took off. For the first time the entire race I started to feel good and increase my pace. I went around Vanessa quickly and a few minutes later Anne was signaling to me that I could adjust my cap again. I stopped and adjusted the cap a little better than the first time and looked back at Vanessa who at this point was about 40 meters behind me. From that point on I knew that the only thing I could do is maintain my current position. As I swam into the finish, I was sighting the touch pad with every stroke. I began to get choked up a bit because even though this race was not what I had wanted or expected, I just felt incredibly lucky to be there. I finished and looked around at all the spectators clapping and cheering for me, and I couldn’t help but smile. Race workers rushed toward me to wrap me in a towel and help me out of the water. Paula, Silvina’s assistant whom I had grown close to over the course of the week, was there with a big smile to congratulate me. Jorge Delgado, the FINA official who was supposed to have been presiding over the marathon (as well as the head official for the Olympic 10k this year) congratulated me as well, telling me that I looked very strong. He was very encouraging and told me that I turned in a very good performance for my first race (especially under the circumstances) and asked if he could keep my cap as a souvenir. Anne handed it over, and I said “Take it! It doesn’t fit right anyway!”
The race organizers had told us that because it was a Monday, that no one would be at the race. It is true that the crowd was much smaller than it would have been for the full marathon, but it was still a larger crowd of spectators than any race I’ve ever swam. There was a group of Green Peace activists singing and playing music (in defense of river conservation) and I had some children approach me with programs and notebooks asking me to give them my signature. I took some more photos with spectators and headed back to the swimmer refreshments table. There I found a glorious amount of watermelon. I was in heaven.
After about an hour and a half we headed back to the hotel. Later that night there was an awards ceremony and a party afterward. We danced the night away and partied as only the Argentinian’s know how to party.
Even though this race was not what I had imagined or wanted, it was, as always, an incredible learning experience. I got my feet wet on the circuit and simultaneously gained confidence while identifying opportunities for improvement. I cannot wait to resume training with all of my new knowledge, and I really cannot wait to race again. So what if the Maraton Hernandarias-Parana still remains on my bucket list? What a great excuse to come back next year! At the end of the party on Monday evening I was approached by a man who handed me his business card and said “We wait for you in Santa Fe” before kissing me on the cheek and walking away. I looked down at the card and behold he was one of the organizers for the Santa-Fe Coronodo swim. I guess that’s a personal invitation.
Photos coming soon……