OK, so I did it. I swam a 5K. If 10K is a marathon, that means I (finally) 'did' a half marathon, right? Let's just get this out of the way right now. 1:48. Yes. An hour and 48 minutes. Slow as molasses. And 8 minutes over my goal. But, that time got me first place in my age group.
Of course, that's not hard when you're the only one in the race who was alive while the Soviet Union still existed:
Yes, those are birth years...
Imagine my surprise when I show up to see that every high school swim team in Cyprus (and Greece, and Bulgaria, and Ukraine) sent their best swimmers to compete in this race. I was older than most of the coaches for God's sake! I was surrounded by skinny, fat-less punks who looked like fast swimmers when they were simply standing on the beach. But let's start at the beginning.
Everything started out strange when I landed at Larnaca and I could have sworn the flight attendant told us the time. In Russian and English. Wow, I thought. We got here like 45 minutes earlier than scheduled. I found my taxi driver, who was late (thus bolstering my opinion that we arrived early), and we were off for the 74KM drive (not 45 as originally thought) to Limassol (or, Lemesos, in Greek).
He dropped me off at my hotel, the Park Beach hotel, a nice little place with a large dining room. Since I registered for the race through the Cyprus Swimming Federation, not only was the taxi covered, but the hotel included full board. I looked forward to dinner. I dropped my crap off in my room and walked to where the technical meeting would be at 7pm.
There was a Bennigan's across from the Famagusta Nautical Club, so I stopped in for a Guiness and some nachos (I was carbo-loading after all), and enjoyed the cool evening. At 15 til, I walked into the club and looked for the swimmers. No one. Just some diners (the club is also a restaurant as well as a sailing, canoeing, and kayaking club). I saw a guy holding what looked like a buoy and he asked who I was. I introduced myself and he asked if I knew about the 7pm technical meeting. I said yes, looked at my watch, and said I'm early. He looked at his watch, showed it to me, and I realized I was an hour late. Apparently Cyprus is only one hour behind Moscow, not two. (My iPod's clock did not include any Cyprus cities.) I apologized and he accepted and we got on with our one-on-one meeting.
He described the course (different from the map) and the buoys. There would be a small buoy, like he was holding (perhaps 18" high) every 250 meters. There would a large buoy, maybe 4-5 feet high, at the 1250 m turn-around, and at the start. The course was straight for the first 1000m, then turned about 30 degrees to the right for the last 250 of the leg. We would be swimming between the beach and the break-waters (those rocky looking things in the map). Since we wouldn't be able to see the large buoy from the start, he said it didn't matter if we swam on the left or right of the small buoys. (A fact that didn't hit me til the race.) He told me to be back promptly at 8am and the race would start at 9 sharp. I walked back to the hotel and got a good nights sleep.
Swim route as advertised
The next morning I was up bright and early, gathered my stuff and walked down to the Club. I was the first one there, at about 7:30. People started filing in. This was my first indication of trouble. Sure, perhaps that's just their mom. She's out to take her kids swimming. No, they're part of the race. Oh, here comes another...kid. Uh-oh. As they all started to collect, in little giggling, cackling groups, I started to worry. How come all the people my age we already drinking (not water)? Oh, they're staying nearby and are just here to enjoy the beach.
Promptly at 8:30 (sarcasm intended), the sign-in started. Or rather, a bunch of Greek yelling started, and a lot of Greek kids started running to a wall. Turns out you had to find your name, then come tell the guys with the markers what your number was so they could mark you. Uh-oh again. I was number one. Doesn't that mean I'm supposed to be fast? Oh crap. I hope these kids don't think I'm fast.
There were about 60-70 5K swimmers and six 10K swimmers. I thanked God for that. Despite their apparent speed (as evidenced by their lack of body-fat (the boys) and their huge muscly thighs (the girls)), I doubted any of them could swim the 10K in less than 1:40. At least I wouldn't be the absolute last person out of the water.
I ended up helping a nice Ukrainian woman who was the trainer for 3 female swimmers (okay, teens). The organizers didn't want to let one of her girls swim in her suit, since it went below the knees, but with my help, we explained that the material was natural and the suit was on the newly approved FINA list. The woman loved me after that and made sure I met her swimmers.
One of them, sweet thing (not saying that in a gross old-man way), asked me if I was swimming the marathon. I answered no, just the 5K. She smiled and said that her personal best was 1:04 (she actually said "one hour, zero four minute") and she hoped to do as well here today. I congratulated her and said I am also hoping for that same result, only "one hour, four zero minute." I found out later, that that young lady is the Ukrainian national champion at 5K. More on them later.
The Ukrainian National 5K Champ picking up her 2nd place trophy
We gathered in the cold water. No official temperature, but I'd say warmer than Copenhagen, perhaps 68 degrees...maybe 66. Anyway, the 9am-sharp start started promptly at 9:30 (again, intended). In-water start, which is fine with me since there are many small-to-boulder sized rocks on the Cypriot beaches. I kept up with the little punks almost to the first 250m buoy. I was proud of myself on that account! There were 2 or 3 I was able to follow for about 1000m until it was just me and Mister (or Misses) yellow-cap.
The start flags
Again, navigation killed me. I couldn't see the intermediate buoys. I think I saw 2 of the first 4, and passed one on the left and one on the right. My initial thought was to cut from the start straight towards the turn-around buoy, under the theory (not really a theory...this is math here) that the hypotenuse is always shorter than the two sides added together. I ended up way over to the left, destroying my plan. Closer to the turn-around, I started coming head-on to swimmers on their return leg. Ah! Left or right of the buoys...there's a problem there!
I followed yellow-cap and we did the turn-around probably 15m from each other. Then I followed him back. This time I intended on following the hypotenuse back in. And again, I swayed out of line. It is at about this point, 1500m into the thing, that my muscles finally started feeling good. I've always felt this way in the pool, that it takes me a good 1000-1500 before I feel like I can really swim, really push it. I started to push it, and felt pretty darn good. I never caught yellow-cap, but I stayed with him or her to the 2500m turn. I glanced at the watch quickly and the time was 51 and some change. So I'm a minute+ over my goal. But I feel great. Time to push it.
On the return, I really had trouble spotting any of the buoys. I realized the current was coming in, because I couldn't see yellow-cap except every 2-3 times I sighted. Troughs and peaks. The current was coming into the beach at an angle. I was swimming east, and the current was coming in northeast. More on that later.
Came head-on again with some swimmers. We managed to not hit each other. But again I was way off course, too far left toward the beach when I should have been closer to the break-waters. I kept up with yellow-cap til the 3750 turn-around, but lost him/her after that. Now I really started to feel the current and the waves. I felt like I was swimming in place. However, I managed to keep check on the intermediate buoys. Or so I thought. When I thought I passed the last buoy, only 250m away from the finish, I kicked. I sighted and swore I saw the final buoy, marking the finish. I kicked and kicked til my calves started to cramp. Then I realized I had just come upon the real 250m buoy. Dammit. I continued to kick as much as I could, but started to lose steam. I had a final kick about 100m from the (real) finish, and came across at 1:48 and some change. 57 minutes on the second loop. That current (and navigation, or lack thereof) killed me.
This is where the video of the nasty current would go if I could figure out how to upload it...
I loped onto shore to see the real swimmers all sitting down, already changed and dry, enjoying food and drink. Oh, not free food and drink. The Cyprus Swimming Fed offered nothing by way of liquid or sustenance. I had to buy two bottles of water before I passed out. Oh, and you know what else I learned? Just because you don't wear a wetsuit doesn't mean you don't need body glide. My underarm (only the right) got a serious rash. I wonder does this happen in fresh water? Was it just the salt water?
The Famagusta Nautical Club and the already-dry and rested 5K kids
No one noticed me finishing, thank God. I grabbed my stuff then went to sit with the Ukrainians. The coach congratulated me and gave me a gift. Turns out they were from a Handball team in Kiev, and a few of her athletes just "happen to swim, too." Yea, just happen to swim enough to be Ukrainian national champ. And then her 10K swimmer finished...first. Overall. Pissing off some Greek boys. Oh, and the Bulgarian girl finished second. Overall.
The winner of the 10K...a Ukrainian Team Handball player
What the swimming fed did right was the trophies. Very nice and large, probably just what the kids wanted on their mantle-pieces, if anyone in Cyprus has a mantle-piece. Overall, though, very disorganized. The Ukrainians mentioned it, and I don't think they'll be back next year. I certainly won't. Cyprus is nice, and the water was amazing (I swam 2k on Sunday and again on Monday before heading to the airport). But there were not enough competitors in my generation (or even one below me) to make it worth a second trip.
And I have to laugh every time I see the words "Men" and "Women" in the title of this race...