Monday 27 October 2008

FINA World Cup Open Water Grand Prix, Sumidero Canyon, Mexico. A week with earthquakes, dead cows, crocodiles, world champions & Olympians!

Above: The official poster for the 2008 FINA World Cup Open Water Grand Prix in the Grijalva River, Sumidero Canyon, Chiapas, Mexico on Saturday October 18th.

Days 1 & 2 - Tue/Wed October 14-15, 2008 - Bury St Edmunds, UK to Mexico via Toronto, Canada.

As the alarm went off at 2am British Summer time, I realised I was off to compete in what would possibly be the swim of a life time in Mexico. My father-in-law picked us up, drove us to Heathrow, and I boarded the Air Canada flight to Toronto with Beccy, my wife, coach and masseuse.

Flying into Toronto some 8+ hours later, I could see the CN Tower, the world's tallest building, out of the window. I sent a text to "Little Hoffy" to tell him I could see the CN Tower. He has always been fascinated by this building. As soon as we landed, we decided that with over 7.5 hours to spare in Toronto, we had to go up it. We caught a taxi, and headed for the Tower.

Above: Beccy (1.65 Metres) standing below the tallest building in the world, the CN Tower in Toronto (553 Metres).

When we got there it really took my breath away. We decided to have lunch there in the 360 Restaurant, a restaurant which revolved once in just over an hour. The view and food was simply stunning.

Above: Beccy on a glass floor just below the 360 Restaurant which really made me feel quite giddy when I looked down.

Above: In "The Sky Pod" which at 447 Metres in the highest observation platform in the world.

We headed back to the airport and took off on a second Air Canada flight to Mexico City. We arrived some 4.5 hours later and were both shattered so headed for the 'Holiday Inn Ciudad de Mexico - Plaza Dali' for 5 hours sleep, before re-boarding a 1.5 hour Aviacsa flight to Tuxtla Gutierrez, where we were picked up by a Mexican girl called Geo who took us to our hotel. So 38 hours after getting up, we had arrived at our hotel, The Holiday Inn in Tuxtla. We were both absolutely shattered.

When we got there, all the World Cup swimmers were about to leave for the 4pm training session. It was good to see so many familiar faces having not seen them since the Serbia Grand Prix in July. We relaxed, had our evening meal then went to bed ready for our two training sessions the next day.

Day 3 - Thursday October 16, 2008 - Training in the pool and meeting the people of Tuxtla Gutierrez

Above: With member of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF) Yuko Matsuzaki who we met in Serbia and who we spent much of the week with.

10.00am on Thursday was our first training session in the pool. We were picked up by coach from the hotel and driven through Tuxtla, then down a very bumpy old track which lead to the 25 Metre outdoor pool called the "Orcas - Centro De Ensenanza Acuatica Chiaps - Mexico". I got a lane with Yuko and a guy from Argentina called Cesar Rodríguez. I started my own session which consisted of a 1,500 Metre swim warm up, followed by various sets of interval training. Yuko followed my lead and Cesar was doing his own thing.

Above: I had to look for the wall each time I turned as it was difficult to see it due to the type of tiles used in the pool.

Above: Yury Kudinov of Russia (back) and me (front) training. Yury swum the channel with the CS&PF in 7 hrs. 7 minutes. That's only about 8 minutes outside the world record! He proudly wore his CS&PF T-shirt all week.

Above: Left to right, Cesar Rodríguez (Argentina), me (England) and Yuko Matsuzaki (Japan) during a break in training.

Above: Chatting to fellow West Suffolk Swimming Club member, ladies captain and number two in the ladies world cup rankings, Stefanie Biller (Germany).

While training, we were being watched from the poolside by none other the 2008 Beijing Olympic 10KM Open Water Champion, Larisa Ilchenko from Russia. She was not swimming this week, having won the 10KM Grand Prix race in Cancun the previous week, but was there as coach for the 2008 women's Open Water Grand Prix World Cup champion Natalya Pankina also of Russia.

Above: 2008 10KM Olympic Champion Larisa Ilchenko (seated) watches us training during her week as coach in Mexico.

Above: Beccy, who has passed her CIBTAC Anatomy and Physiology course and is part was through her body massage course, was studying while we swum. She also gave Yuko a back massage afterwards to help get rid of a painful knot in her shoulder.

Above: Damian Blaum (Argentina) who competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, being interviewed by the press who were there in abundance during the training sessions.

Above: A short video of the morning training session on Thursday October 16, 2008.

Above: Some of the competitors for the race, line up for the press at the end of the swim. Left to right: Swimmer from Mexico, Stephan Gómez (France), Dörte Kamrau (Germany), Gabriel Villagois (Argentina), Stefanie Biller (Germany), Cesar Rodríguez (Argentina), Brendan Capel (Australia), Marianella Mendoza (Argentina), Tomi Stefanovski (Macedonia), Paul Hopfensperger (England), Larisa Ilchenko (Russia), Yury Kudinov (Russia), Natalya Pankina (Russia), Mariam Maricusi Sanchez (Panama), Brita Kamrau (Germany), Esther Nunez (Spain), Yuko Matsuzaki (Japan), Danil Serebrennikov (Russia), Damian Blaum (Argentina), German coach, Rodolfo Valenti (Italy). Front row kneeling - Shelley Clark (Australia), a Mexican swimmer, Noelia Petit (Argentina).

Beccy took the above picture at the same time as the press. The following morning, it appeared in the Mexican press. Click below for story (in Spanish):-

Atletas se alistan para la Copa FINA - El Heraldo de Chiapas - October 17, 2008

We completed a 1.25 hour, 3,250 Metre session, then went back to the hotel for lunch, and a nap before the afternoon session at 4.30pm. Just after lunch, English Channel World Record holder and 8 times World Cup Open Water champion, Peter Stoychev arrived from Bulgaria, and joined us for the afternoon swim. It was good to see him again having not seen him since Serbia in July.

At 4.30pm, we headed back to the pool for another session. This time Petar Stoychev came with us, and it was quite an experience to be training in the same pool as him.

Above: Brita Kamrau (Germany) front and me (top) training during the afternoon session.

Above: English Channel World Record Holder and 8 times World Cup Open Water Champion, Petar Stoychev (Bulgaria) training in Mexico.

Above: trying to have a conversation with my training buddy Cesar Rodríguez of Argentina. Only problem was, I didn't speak Spanish and he didn't speak English! We just nodded, pointed and kept patting each other on the back all week!

Above: When we all got out, we all had to sign the T-Shirts of the swimmers from the local swimming club. It was a humbling experience.

In the afternoon I had swum 2,000 Metres in about 45 minutes, which was a total of 5,250 Metres for the day. My only concerns were this. Firstly, my arms throughout the day felt really heavy. I don't know if it was through tiredness after the long journey, or the altitude, but they felt heavy. Secondly, about every 5th to 6th breath, even while walking I had to take a deep breath to get enough Oxygen. It turned out that we were about 800 Metres above sea level. I was a bit concerned about this, but there was nothing I could do so just kept taking the deep breaths whenever I needed. The funny thing was, that Beccy, who is a little bit asthmatic, felt absolutely fine, it just seemed to be me that was suffering. It was something I couldn't explain, but just had to put up with.

At 6.30pm on the same day, we all climbed onto an open top bus, which was to drive us through the main street while the people lined the roads. It was a very surreal experience, and I don't think in England this bus would have bee let onto the roads. It felt very unsafe! Beccy and I took our seats, and all of the press and the officals stood up at the back.

Above: Me, Yuko and Beccy on the bus with Dörte Kamrau behind.

Above: Brita and Dörte Kamrau with Steffie Biller behind. Yuko is taking a photo, and Gabriel Villagois of Argentina is standing on the right. Other swimmers and officials were standing at the back.

Above: Seated at the back: Esther Nunez and Damian Blaum, Stephan Gomez and Gabriel Villagois and front Mariam Maricusi Sanchez from Panama.

Above: Noelia Petit (seated with head on hand) and front Tomi Stefanavski and Petar Stoychev.

As we turned the first corner, we noticed how very low some of the cables were as they were coming towards us. Looking round, all the officials at the back were standing and we saw impending disaster about to ocurr. "Cables, cables, duck, duck!" we shouted as they dissapeared about 300mm over our heads! As I looked round, I just saw everyone duck at the last moment and one of the cables scraped up the side of the face of the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee Delegate Mr. Valerijus Belovas of Lithuania, before catching his ear and sliding over his head. I was stunned! That was a lucky escape. We continued along the route, dodging overhead cables before eventually arriving at the town square which was absolutely packed with people waiting for the bus to arrive.

Above: A line of people lead us from the bus and towards the central bandstand where we were all called up on stage one by one by name and country.

Above: Lining up on the stage in front of all the people and press who had gathered to welcome the swimmers.

Above: Me with the 2008 Beijing Olympic 10KM Open Water Champion, Larisa Ilchenko from Russia.

Above: Left to right: Dörte Kamrau, Stefanie Biller, Noelia Petit, Esther Nunez and Brita Kamrau.

Above: Gabriel Villagois, Marianella Mendoza and Stephan Gomez enjoying the evening.

We got back on the bus, went back to the hotel following the same route and dodging the same cables. We went to bed looking forward to our first view of the Sumidero Canyon tomorrow, and to see the course we would be swimming on Saturday. It had been a long day.

Day 4 - Friday October 17, 2008 - Sumidero Canyon and the day the Earth moved for me!

Above: Beccy and I at the end point of the 15KM race, Sumidero Canyon, Mexico. It was simply a stunning view across the water.

Today was our first chance to take a look at the canyon, and so to see where we would be swimming the next day. We were taken by bus to the end of the race where we climbed into a boat (watched by the press) and proceeded back along the last 7 KM of the race route. The scenery was simply stunning.

Above: In the boat heading back along the last 5KM of of the race. Left to right, Beccy, Yuko, Valerijus, me, Omar Díaz González (Mexican Swimming Federation) and Mariam.

Above: Just one of the many stunning views of the Sumidero Canyon. You can see that there was no flow to the water. It was quite stagnant.

We arrived at a place they called "The Christmas Tree" at about 5KM from the finish point. Here we were told that we could swim in the water. However, I had been warned that swimming in this water could cause serious illness. I was very hesitant but finally decided to get in when Dörte Kamrau said that it could cause stomach upset. Having it after the race was OK, but not before the race. Therefore both Yuko and I decided that it was not worth getting in and watched while the others did.

On the way back, the conversation came up about crocodiles. Apparently, there were crocodiles in the canyon, but quite a way down river. Omar assured me that in 19 years of this competition, a crocodile had never been seen during the race. Anyway, we would be stating at 8am which was when the crocs were asleep so there was no need to worry. That's alright then. So not only could we end up with serious stomach problems (which had put someone in hospital the previous year) we had to worry about crocs in the river! I was getting nervous.

We headed back towards the finish point, and Omar explained that if it rained tomorrow, we would be starting 2KM further down the course, but would have to swim around the island which was 2KM. This was due to garbage coming down the mountain into the water when it rained somewhere near the start point. I was glad that I had seen this last fe KM of the race, as it is always good to see the course you will be swimming. We got back on the bus and I pictured the course, stomach aches, sickness and crocodiles. This was going to be an interesting swim.

The next morning, the following was in the local press:-

When we got back to the hotel, I swum 1,400 Metres in the hotel pool, while many other swimmers (including the Olympic Champion) sunbathed in the Mexican sun. It was nice to be back in the pool. I did 30 minutes and the pool temperature was 28 degrees.

I decided to have a sleep while Beccy headed of for the gym. I laid down on the bed, and gently dozed off. A short while later, I felt Beccy standing at the end of the bed, shaking it back and forth. I was not happy and could see her standing there while I was shaken quite violently. Then I woke up to find that Beccy wasn't there and the bed was still shaking. Trying to get my bearings, everything stopped and I felt no movement. That was some dream I thought. I shut my eyes and started to drift off again when, off it went again. This time I was awake enough to realize that not only the bd was moving, the whole building was moving! I laid there waiting for cracks to appear in the walls and ceiling when it stopped. I had just experienced a small earthquake! When Beccy got back and I told her, she said she hadn't felt it, however some of the others did and I was told that it was quite common in this part of Mexico.

That night, we had the FINA Technical Meeting in the hotel where all the rules were explained to us. We would be leaving the hotel at 06.15am the following morning, to start the race at 8am (to miss the crocodiles I assumed!).

Above: All swimmers and coaches attended the FINA Technical meeting in the hotel at 19:00 Hrs.

Following the briefing and handing out of our badges, we headed off to bed early ready for a 5am alarm call the next day.

Day 5 - Saturday October 18, 2008 - Race Day.

When the alarm went off at 5am, I was fired up and ready for the race! We headed down to breakfast then at 06.15 Hrs. we set off for the 1 hour bus drive to the start of the race.

When we got there, it all went into fast mode. We all had to take our tops off and have our numbers written on both shoulders, both sides of our back and both backs of hands. Then it was a rush to get on the boats, and set off for the start of the race.

Above: Getting my number (number 9) written on my back so that it could be seen from the support boat.

Above: With 8 time World Cup Champion, Petar Stoychev of Bulgaria before the start of the race.

Above: 0.5 Litres of Maxim and a photo with Beccy before getting onto our support boat.

Above: All the support boats line up with the corresponding numbers and the flag of your country on the back of the boat. I was proud to be the only one from England in the race, in fact, the only one from Great Britain at all.

It was pouring with rain, and when we climbed onto the boat, we handed our bags to someone so that we didn't slip. We had to walk about 5 or six baots until we reached number 9. The organisers were keen to start the race so we sped off at an incredible rate of knotts towards the start line which I found out was 10KM away. As we sped off, we realised that we had left all of Beccy's food and drink in the boat next to us! We panicked at the thought of her having no food or drink for 4/5 hours. Our pilot said it was OK we could ask boat No. 10, where we thought it was last seen, when we got to the start.

Above: Heading away from the start position down river towards the start of the race.

As we sped off, I was thinking about Beccy's food, and of crocodiles. I was quite nervous. The speed of the boat, which was extremely fast, caused the rain to sting our faces and we were both getting soaked, even though we were the only boat with a canopy over the top of us. We didn't see any crocodiles, but after the race, we were told that there was a 5 Metre croc, about 5KM from where we had set off. Shelley Clarke from Australia had taken a photo of it, and e-mailed it to me when we got back:-

Above: The photo of the 5 Metre long crocodile taken by Australian swimmer Shelley Clarke. Thankfully, I didn't see it when we were on our way to the starting position!

All I can say is that I was glad I didn't see it before the race! I'm not sure if it was asleep or not, but it looks damn scary to me!

When we got to where the start of the race should have been, it looked like about 10 dust carts had emptied their loads into the river. It was disgusting! Boat No. 3 (Petar Stoychev's boat) slowly made it's way through it, as did we. There was all sorts in there. Bottles, paper, cans, branches from trees etc. The steam was coming off the water like a typical jungle scene you see in films. It was very surreal.

Above: Petar Stoychev's boat weaves through all of the rubbish and branches which were floating in the river at the start position.

We were told that we would now be starting further down the river due to this rubbish, and so would have to swim around the island as explaind the day before on our course inspection. I was so glad I had seen it yesterday. All the boats stopped, and we stripped down toget ready for the start of the race.

Above: West Suffok Swimmng Club hat on, ear plugs in, goggles ready and one last drink before entering the water.

I positioned myself in between Petar Stochev and Stephan Gomez. We lined up, the flag dropped and we were off!

For about the first 5 minutes I kept with them getting well and truly kicked in the face. It was very crowded and very fast in there. What I immediately felt was that thee was no current helping us along, it was extremely warm in there (about 27 degrees Centigrade) and I so I wasn't going to be able to keep this pace up for the duration of the race. I therefore slowed down from about 85% flat out to about 70%. Immediately, I found myself out on my own as the leading group slowly disappeared into the distance.

I didn't feed for the first hour, and when I did it was an excellent feed. Beccy put our pole over the edge of the boat, I quickly gulped down my Maxim, threw the cup to the pilot and carried on. I then fed every 30 minutes or so after that.

After about 1 hour 20 minutes, my arms felt very heavy. Really heavy. Just like they had in the pool two days earlier. I don't know why this was. I wondered if I had trained enough, I wondered if it was the altitude. I was breathing OK, but felt I had a lack of Oxygen in my system. I slowed a bit and kept going. There was so much crap in the water, it was unbelievable. I constantly banged into logs and got tangled in sticks. On two occassions I really jumped as the logs looked just like crocodiles and scared the shit out of me!

Above: Swimming into another log which was floating in the water. It was a real obstacle course from start to finish. Look at the size of the one behind the boat. I was constantly worried that they were crocodiles!

Above: Vultures eat a dead cow which just happened to be floating in the river as I swum past!

Eventually, I slowed down to just a bit faster than my channel swim pace. i.e. 67-70 strokes per minute. The walls of the canyon were simply amazing. Most of them stretched about 800 to 1000 Metres above me. I swum but admired the view, trying to forget about crocs. Vultures and Pelicans hovered above me. The Pelicans looked like dinasours flying above me. It was just like swimming through Jurassic Park!

For some inexplicable reason, the backs of my shoulders really started to hurt. This didn't even happen on my channel swim a little over a month before. Why was this happening now I wondered? I was really hurting, I was totally over heating, my legs felt as though they were trapped in my Speedo leggings, and I couldn't pee. No matter how hard I tried I couln't pee. I was so de-hydrated I had no pee to pee! I slowed to channel swim pace, and was determined to just finish the swim.

Eventually we got to "The Chrismas Tree" where the others had swum yesterday. This meant that there was about 7 KM to go. God, I had only done 8KM and I was really sruggling. I did my usual when it get's tough in these situations, I thought of all the reasons why I had to keep going; The cost of getting here, the time we had taken off work, the money for the charities, how pissed off I would be if I had come all this way and not finished. I dug in, put one arm in front of the other and just kept swimming.

Having been here yesterday on the boat, I was picturing my swim from here all the way back. I was picturing it in my mind. Just up to the rock in front, across to the Island, around the Island, then across the expanse of open water and we would be there. No problems. It took forever!

Eventually, we broke out of the canyon, and I could see the Island. Not far now I thought. However, swimming across the expanse of water to the Island took much longer than I imagined. My stroke rate didn't drop, but I just didn't feel as though I was getting anywhere. The water was totally stagnant with no flow at all. It was really, really tough and I was absolutely cooked! It was so hot in there and my leggings felt so tight. I still couldn't pee and was getting worried about it. It can cause kidney failure and system shut down if you can't pee. I kept feeding, but couldn't pee. What was just as bad was that I felt physically sick now every time I swallowed the Maxim. Again, I didn't experience this once on my channel swim, now I was heaving with every mouthful. It was disgusting.

As I swum across this bit, I really felt the pain in my shoulders. It was here that Beccy told me Petar Stoychev had got out. I wondered why. It was tough but couldn't work out why he had got out. Thinking about it kept my mind occupied for a while anyway.

Eventually, I rounded the Island, and at last I could see in the distance, the finish line. It was bloody miles away! I couldn't believe how far it was. "Come on" Beccy shouted. "Just keep going". Somehow I did. I had about 3 feeds across this last massive stretch of water, which was apparently in places, 200 Metres deep!

Above: A little bit ov video taken by Beccy during the race. Apologies for burping but the Maxim really made me feel ill on this particular swim!

Eventually, I looked up and could see the finish line. I was so happy I can't tell you. This had been so tough! I would go as far as to say it was tougher than swimming the channel. The main reason was due to the hot water I had been swimming in. I simply wasn't used to it and was overheating. Give me Dover Harbour or The English Channel temperatures any day!

As I came into the finish line, I smashed the palm of my hand onto the "Meta" sign, swum underneath and really was very pleased with myself. I had done it. On several occassions during the race I honestly didn't think I would finish. Somewhere, from deep within, I keep finding the inner strength to complete these swims. It was a great feeling, and I was chuffed to bits! The best bit was, I had seen no crocodiles!!!

Above: Just a few seconds after swimming under te finish line. Below: our pilot.

I got out and there were hundreds of people standing there applauding us as we got out. Yuko came in about 10 minutes after me, and Cesar about 15 minutes after that.

Above: With Noelia Petit (Argentina) and Mariam Maricusi Sanchez (Panama) after the race. I had come 13th out of 15 which was all I had wanted, i.e. not to come last. I was very pleased.

That night, we had a reception in the hotel where the trophies were given out. I think everyone was tired, I know I was, it had been a great day.

Above: Beccy standing by the hotel swimming pool prior to attending the evening reception.

Above: The winners receive their trophies. The ladies race first, followed by the men's race.

Above: Beccy and I during our superb Mexican meal.

Above: Another photo with Russia's 10KM Olympic Champion, Larisa Ilchenko.

Day 6-8 - A rest day followed by the long journey home.

On the Sunday we finally had a rest day. We got up late, had a great breakfast then took a walk through the town centre. Yuko came running to me to tell me that that in one of the news papers, there was a huge photo of me on the front page. I went and bought a copy. I couldn't beleive it!. I will scan it in when I get an A3 scanner, but at present I don't have the facility to do so.

Here is one of the newspaper reports:-

Histórico triunfo del mexicano Iván López - El Heraldo de Chiapas - October 19, 2008

If any swimmer is 30 minutes or more behind the winning time, then he or she is classified as outside the time limit, and no time is given. I was outside the time limit as was Cesar and Petar did not finish.

Click here to download the official FINA results

Click here to download the official FINA final rankings for 2008

I did a 1,000 Metre "wind down" swim in the hotel pool, and in the evening we had a nice meal with Yuko on our last night.

Above: The last swim in the hotel pool covering 1,000 Metres on Sunday afternoon.

The next day, it was up early again to catch the bus to the airport with Yuko and Noelia Petit. Noelia flew with us to Mexico City but we said goodbye to Yuko in Tuxtla as she was flying to Houston in the USA. We flew on again to Toronto then back into Heathrow. This time the trip was "only" 28 hours where Beccy's dad picked us up.

I am so pleased and honoured to have swum in both Mexico and Serbia back in July, and am sad that having met such a great group of people who are always so friendly to us, we may not get the opportunity to swim with them again due to new British Swimming rules. I do hope we can, but we will just have to wait and see.

All of the above photos can be viewed on my Facebook page. There are two albums:-

Click here to view the Mexico album 1 on Facebook

Click here to view the Mexico Album 2 on Facebook