Tuesday, June 27, 2017

DNF : Tabarca Marathon Swim 21km

A Spanish International Marathon swimmer came to our Malaysian shores a bit more than a year ago  and my life has not been the same, in a good way. We both swam around Pulau Perhentian Besar on 28 September 2016, me going anti clockwise  accompanied by a taxi boat whilst he went clockwise with another international swimmer. I was of course much slower taking 7 hours 2 minutes for the 15.4 km (as per my Garmin). We think we were the first to swim around the island.
So I am always on the look out for long distance swim events. The heart attack that I had at Port Dickson on 18 December 2016, meant that arrangements that had already been made for the Rottnest Channel Swim on 25 Feb 2017, had to be rescinded. The Rottnest Channel swim involves about 3,000 little boats. All participants are as a minimum required to have a dedicated boat shadowing them and many solo swimmers (about 200 swimmers will do the 19.7 km channel swim, solo) will also have a kayak shadowing them. Being from overseas, I found it almost impossible to confirm a boat and kayak for Rottnest.  Thus both participants and organisers need to put in a lot of effort for a long distance swim event, resulting in there being very few of them around the world.
Apart from Rottnest, another event I had my eye on was the Tabarca - Alicante Swim 21km which had been going on successfully for many years, but Spain seemed so far away, or so I thought.

"Sofian, you can stay at my house"
Then one day, the event organizer told me, "Sofian, you can stay at my house, I will be your guide". That was it, the magic words. Its not that we are desperate for free accommodation, but Spain is a long way away and we have never been there. Travelers want a local to be there for them, just in case.
I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit Spain and participate in a dream swim event.
With the internet and Jose's guidance, we got the ball rolling very quickly. Using  Skyscanner, we found the cheapest flight (KLM). Then using Booking.com, we found a wonderful apartment very centrally located. I was very pleasantly surprised with KLM. It is the best economy airline  I have ever used. The air stewards were all very pleasant, helpful and spoke good English (I immediately liked Holland). The modern economy seats were the most spacious I have been on and they have many recent movies. On the way back, there was a seven hour transit at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. The Airport has good free wifi, everyone speaks English and is only 15 minutes by train to Amsterdam Central. When you go to Europe, Immigration only checks you once, at the point you enter Europe. Then you are pretty much free to go anywhere. So on the flight back, we went to Amsterdam City and did a Canal Tour, whoopee, how nice.

Not bad for a cheap flight. We managed to see Amsterdam on the way back

Canal tour at Amsterdam
The only snag before the trip, was that we needed a Schengen visa for my Thai wife. No problems with my Malaysian Passport though, it really is one of the best Passports on the planet. However the Spanish Embassy in KL was very helpful and my wife's visa was sorted out in time for the trip.

The Days Leading to the Event
The event was on 10 June 2017, Saturday. We arrived on Monday night, 5th June  at 9 p.m. (the sun was still shining). The Event Director and another Committee Member picked us up from Alicante Airport. How's that for VIP treatment from the Event Organisers!! (if they organized another event, would I go? Of course I will).

The Accommodation
Our accommodation was called Tomate Room  and they were in touch with us, even before the trip started. This recently opened apartment style hotel is owned by three brothers. They really are very nice people and explained in detail anything we wanted to know.  It seemed like they knew exactly what travelers wanted. So we hit the jackpot as far as accommodation was concerned.
Our unassuming Apartment. Centrally located but quiet.

Our Apartment. Tomate Room
The apartment's location was exceptional, so close to everything. Even the Marina, where we had to catch the boat at 5am for the race start, was nearby. A swimmer was quite distraught that morning as he had forgotten his swim wear. No problem, we walked back to our apartment and obtained the official swimwear for him to wear. He was very grateful.
Our Apartment's central location meant we didn't need to rent a car. We also figured out how to use the city and suburban buses to visit a nearby city called Elche. No mean feat that, because in Alicante all signs are in Spanish or Valencian and English is not generally spoken.

We have a very positive impression of  Spanish People
The Hotel Reception explained to us that Spanish people are family oriented and children must always live close to their parents. Thus "the Spanish would rather stay in Spain, with nothing,  than live overseas with everything". The Spanish are less international in outlook compared to other Europeans. There are no signs in English and even the person manning the Information counter at the Town Hall couldn't speak English.
They greet each other by saying "Hola" (the "H" is silent by the way), which is short and simple, I like it.
The elderly are everywhere in Alicante, with their walking sticks or wheelchairs, some are dancing to the music. They look very happy, its nice to see. Young girls are skipping along and singing. These scenes can only happen if it is a safe city and society is kind.
The Spanish also know how to have good clean fun. On Saturday night there was a parade / festival right by our Hotel window. It was fun to see toddlers half asleep with the elderly in fancy dress take part in the procession and dancing to the beat.
And of course it was a Spanish person that invited us over. Even his Dad invited us to his home. So we have a very positive impression of Spanish people. Its great at this late stage of our lives, to meet a new culture and be amazed by them.
Viva Espana!

Wednesday - Visit to Tabarca Island
The race starts on Tabarca Island, so we decided to make a boat trip there on Wednesday. The large tourist boat took about an hour to reach the island and the sea was very choppy that day.
Its an interesting island. Half of it is vegetation whilst the other half is the village. The island has a permanent population of about 50 inhabitants. Its history goes back a few hundred years. It has been a pirate's bay, garrison, prison, fishing village, marine reserve, lighthouse etc. Now it is mostly a tourism spot and marine reserve.
I didn't try to swim. Many school children were playing games in the sea and I wrongly assumed the water temperature would be ok for me.
A Fort in the olden days

Main shopping street

One edge of the island

Houses in a straight line

The main beach

The island's harbor. Race started here

Thursday - Bus trip to Elche, visited Jose's Dad,  did some pool swimming
Part of the joy of travelling is to visit friends and see things as it is. Jose actually lives and work in the nearby city of Elche. We took on the adventure of getting to Elche without taking a taxi. Well, we used "Google Maps" and that made things too easy. By entering your start and ending points, it will tell you very precisely how to get to your destination. Which parts you need to walk, how long that would take, which buses to take and their departure times, the route etc. So that was a cinch.
Jose, Jose's Dad, David (the shorter person, has 35 bone fractures but has completed the 21km swim many times.
Yes you can!!

Managed to do a swim at Elche University


Happy we figured out how to use the bus
 I half expected Spain and its public transport to be in some disarray since we read that it was in serious economic trouble. But it wasn't like that. Spain was just like any other European country, clean and orderly. Its buses (more like a coach), were punctual, clean and very comfortable.
Jose's Dad, Uncle and Jose himself were very hospitable to us. They were as good as any of the very best people we have come across. Viva Espana ha ha.

We also went swimming at Elche University. I finally managed to put in a swim. There were many better swimmers in the pool. Swimming is big in Spain.

Friday - short practice dip, sightseeing and Race Briefing
First thing in the morning I went for my first dip in the Mediterranean at the Event's finish beach (Postiguet Beach). Many people were jogging but definitely no one was swimming. It took me a while before I was brave enough to fully submerge by body. I must have swam 10 minutes, that will do.

We visited the most famous landmark in Alicante, the Santa Barbara Castle. Its huge and has been fought over for more than a thousand years. So exciting to be surrounded by history.
Down there is Postiguet Beach, the Finish line for the swim

Santa Barbara Castle. The Kayakers would target this hill

View from Santa Barbara. San Juan

View of the Marina from Santa Barbara

View of Melia Alicante

Race briefing was at 5 p.m. at maybe the best Hotel in Alicante, The Melia Alicante. All these places were close to our accommodation. I noticed that Jose did all the briefing, first in Spanish then in English. He was the one who knew everything. He is somebody in Spain, but he still is so nice to us, Thank you. We collected our goodie bag.

Swimmers and kayakers were required to be at the Marina at 5 a.m. One swimmer from Poland was quite distraught as he had forgotten his swimwear. No problem, Tip walked back to our nearby accommodation and got him the official swimwear. Well at least we did one good deed that day. Tip then went back to our Hotel to rest and wait for the finish.
I met my volunteer kayaker, Alex for the first time. Friendly chap, it amazes me how people are willing to kayak for free for a day.

Waited bare chested for 2 hours
At about 6.45 am we were all ready for the official swim start at 7 a.m. I was in my FINA approved leg tights and that was it. My upper body was bare. It was cold (below 20 C), feet was bare, beach was rocky and bird poo everywhere. It was an awful morning.
We waited around feeling cold and were told the start was delayed as one of the three marker boats did not have the required license  (our clothes and stuff had already gone back to the mainland). It was difficult to keep warm whilst waiting and the sun wasn't shining. I think the others (all Europeans) were largely ok. A few  were standing in the cold water without a care in the world.
But it was a different matter for me from the equator. ALL my swimming was done in an open air pool at home in the tropics (30 C). I have stopped going to the colder indoor pools and taking cold showers there as I  got  sick many times. Not the correct preparation, now I know.
With my buddy from Poland. He gave me some tips for cold water swimming
Too Late ha ha

Just before the start with Race Director Jose

Race start - 7.40 a.m.
The siren went off, I gingerly walked into the water. Gosh it was cold. Everyone else swam off into the sunrise. It really was very cold. I very slowly walked deeper into the sea and eventually fully submerged myself. #### IT WAS FREEZING!!!.
I started swimming and assumed that I would feel better after a few minutes, which I did for a while.

I had  a good kayaker (Alex) and every 25 minutes he would give me my nutrition as we agreed. The bananas I was scoffing wasn't sitting well in my tummy (in fact with the different diet in Spain, my tummy wasn't ok all week). I drank CarboPro as I think its a really good product. My pace was quite slow. Bless my kayaker though, he was positive throughout.

Safety aspect very well done
The Organisers are very experienced and the safety side was very well covered. Each swimmer had a kayak escort. 3 large ships with medical teams were placed every 5km. Kayakers are required to report to these ships. Jet Skis were doing their rounds. Two powerful boats were also doing their rounds. I saw them many times. Roving ambulances were on standby at the shore. Actually Spanish society understand the sea and the risks involved very well.

In trouble!
My nose became completely blocked which had never happened before. I had some hot tea and that helped a bit. But I wasn't feeling good. There's no place to hide when you are swimming. The cold water engulfs your body completely. There isn't a tree to sit under, hanging onto the kayak for respite is technically not allowed, slowing down is not a good idea, stopping to rest is not possible in the sea. My bare upper body felt very cold and at 8.4km, I told my kayaker I was going to stop at 10km. He alerted the safety boats and they all started shadowing me.
 I only lasted until 8.8km . It was just too cold for me and with my dodgy heart, I GAVE UP. The disappointment was intense as I went into the rescue boat. My kayaker still gave me encouragement and paddled off.
To come all the way and not even make the half way point was a huge disappointment. Its also the first time I gave up during a swim event.
I felt better once on the boat though, out of the cold water and into the sunshine.
All the rescue personnel were nice to me. The rescue boat sent me to a lovely  beach near Santa Pola and I admired how they politely reminded little children "Chica" to only play in the safe zone. A Lifeguard was waiting and after a few minutes he drove me to Postiguet Beach, the finish line. All very professional. 

At the Finish Line
The first swimmers still hadn't finish. There were many event officials around and they recognized me. They were all nice to me. Tip came and but I wasn't in the mood for hanging around and went back to the Hotel.

The prize giving was again at the nice Melia Hotel. Jose was doing the briefing in Spanish and everyone was civil and polite. I didn't notice there was a lot of unhappiness. The top prizes were given out. Jose, the defending Champion and course record holder  came in third. I didn't understand why only one woman received a trophy, when I saw quite a few female participants at the start.
Then Jose started giving out the finish certs and little trophies. It was all in Spanish so I was day dreaming. Jose repeatedly called my name. Oh well, they are giving me the finish cert and trophy too. A bit embarrassing as I didn't finish. I still didn't know that more than half were not allowed to finish the swim.
We had the pleasure of meeting Lorena Peral who won the Penang Cross Channel swim in 2016.

Something has happened, I tried to slowly put the pieces together.

There is a cut-off of 7.5 hours (2.30 p.m.) to reach the Port Area (roughly 19km). It was explained as long as a swimmer made that cut-off, the swimmer will be allowed to finish. It is an "amateur event" and the Organisers wants everyone to finish and generally everyone does finish.

However, the start was delayed by 1 hour 40 mins, and that cut off at the Port became 5 hours 45 mins (still 2.30 p.m.) and the Port Authorities strictly implemented the cut off.

It was a very significant reduction in the time allowed and only 21 swimmers out of the 50 that started made the cut-off. The Port Authorities actually picked up more than half the participants  just 1 or 2 km from the finish line.

Swimmers were livid and I suppose not very tactful with their displeasure.

So the Organiser (who is the nicest person on the planet) announced on the event official page that they have decided to stop organizing the event after many years of doing so.

Bear in mind there are very few events like this in the world. It requires really special skills and a lot of effort. Organisers are doing this from their hearts, for the satisfaction of seeing swimmers finish.

For example, the support team on race day was humongous. 50 kayaks and paddlers, 3 ships along the route with their crew and medics, many jet skis and powered boats with crew (going up and down the 21km course), ambulance also going up and down the shore, standby lifeguard at Santa Pola (who helped me and drove me to Postiguet Beach), large number of finish line officials, timers, food spread at finish, all participants (even useless ones like me) getting a goodie bag, official swim wear and cap, finish certificate with name printed, small trophy, briefing and prize presentation at the best Hotel in town.

Its not a fly by night job. There was easily more than 100 highly skilled individuals on duty on race day. Its obvious the Organisers have put in their heart and soul into this event.

But now its all over.

It was our longest ever holiday, our longest trip for a sporting event and my wife said this was her best trip yet. Ha ha we all know the wife is always correct.

The Spanish people are amongst the very best people we have met. They welcomed us at the airport, invited us to their homes, gave us very special treatment to two nobodies from the east.

All ages know how to have good clean fun, whether at the many beaches, a street parade, whatever.

They have amazing beaches, so many of them. The people at the beaches are happy. Its perfectly normal to be happy.

Street cafes are everywhere, all along the Esplanade.

History is everywhere. They were a world super power at one time. Many countries in the world speak Spanish. The architecture is beautiful. Buildings are in perfectly straight lines.

Streets are clean and orderly. Pedestrians stop at traffic lights. Public transport is excellent.

The City is safe. The elderly are everywhere.

Prices are very reasonable for Europe.

So we were very happy with the trip. If Jose invites us again, we will go ha ha

Next event:  Bali 10km Charity Ocean Swim on 2 July 2017



Mohd Syafei Ahmad said...

Wow 20 degrees without wetsuit? That was like swimming in the arctic. Anyway 9 km in those conditions in those is already a stunning feat bang. Congratulations. Sad that the race being discontinued.

sofiantriathlete said...

Thank you Syafei
As always you are very kind to me.

I now here they will organize another swim event from the same Tabarca island but heading in the opposite direction (26 km I think) so that they avoid the Port area which has very strict rules.

Thank you