After deciding to go on holiday to France and northern Spain, I started to look for a swim event I could time the family holiday around. My search led me to Ria Navia, a swim festival weekend in northern Spain halfway from France to the Portugese border. Over a weekend there are two races: I entered the 7.5km Asturias Cup, swimming laps of the estuary; and my wife Oonagh will take part in the 5km Descencio Ria Navia, a downriver swim into the estuary harbour.
We arrive at the Asturias Cup registration on time at 2pm but in typical Spanish style it doesn’t start till nearer 2.30. I take a seat with Oonagh and our two boys as we were among the first there. I look around as other competitors start to arrive. The first to sit down is a girl in National Swedish colours with her personal coach, carrying a small flag pole with a Swiss flag attached. Next arrive the Netherlands team and one has an Olympic symbol on his team top! Then after a second look at the Swiss team they have a coach who is wearing an Olympic Open Water top. Now I am bricking it… what have I entered myself into? More to the point, why did they let me enter? Next I see a quite large lady arrive with a Russian top. I start to think that perhaps I have a chance against her. Two minutes later some really fit Russian girls arrive. The big one is the coach. My heart sinks.
Eventually registration opens and I get my race numbers. They provide tattoo transfers for your hands, arms and shoulder blades and there is a team of helpers to attach them to you. My mood lifts a little as there are some very pretty Spanish girls in hotpants applying them to me. Also, the Russian and German women’s teams are beside me in bikinis getting their numbers attached. I am pleasantly distracted from my concerns about the swim!
Thankfully I then meet the race organiser, who I had been emailing since January. Panicked, I ask her if I am in the wrong event. She assures me that the race has two categories: the European Cup (Olympic standard swimmers) and the traditional Asturias Cup that has locals of all levels. Soon after some of the locals turn up and I calm down as I see that some have grey hair and a similar physique to me. Anyhow, too late to turn back now.
With 90 mins to start time I need a quick bite and we head to a nearby restaurant to get a light lunch with Oonagh and the boys. I leave the various national teams to their high energy lunches and drinks with their earphones plugged to their Ipods as they mentally prepare for the event. My pre-race nutrition consists of calamaris, some of the boys’ left-over sandwiches and a double expresso.
After a slap of suncream and Vaseline I leave the family and make my way to the start. As we line up I quickly identify the local swimmers in their Speedos from their more adult shapes and decide to hang out beside them. The remainder are in the full competition swim suits. I confirm the route and how many laps in my broken Spanish as I figure the Olympians will leave me for dust. The course is three laps from the harbour to the mouth of the estuary and back to the bridge in the town of Navia. Each lap is 2.5km. All the other teams have feeding controlled by coaches and telescopic poles that deliver them high energy drinks. I don’t have a coach or a pole so shove my only energy gel into my lucky budgie smugglers.
As expected I was left for dust at the start as the serious competitors go off in a wave of white splashes. I am happy to hang back and not get caught up in the fight that happens at the start of these events. I hold back a little knowing I haven’t done the training and try to conserve some energy. This is supposed to be my family holiday after all and I have prepared with two weeks of no training but plenty of vino and good eating (carbo and protein loading)!
As we leave the shelter of the harbour and swim into the estuary I quickly learn there is a severe flow going against us from the incoming tide. My gentle start pays off as I start to pick off some swimmers within the first kilometre who were a little too zealous. I then find myself in a pack of four and soon realise that drafting is allowed. It’s still early so I stick to my pace. As we near the mouth of the estuary a rough swell makes sighting more difficult. I can really feel the force of the current slowing me down. At the mouth of the estuary there are two yellow buoys that you have to navigate. As soon as you turn the first buoy it is a 100m swim across to the next. I turn the buoy and within eight strokes I sight again only to discover the current is pushing me back the way I came. I have to swim at an angle pointing to sea just to make sure I get to the next buoy. I just about make the buoy and crash into it as I feel the current push me. We regroup quickly for the return to the bridge and harbour.
We stick together as a pack of four. I try to use my mantras again but find it hard as there is a long way to sight and it is hard to keep straight. At the harbour bridge I am pleasantly surprised to see Oonagh with the boys on the harbour waving me on. I wave back as I am swimming. Three quarters of the way back up I see a fast-moving pack to my right start to pull up on us. I suddenly remember the women’s race started 15 mins after the men’s and this is the Olympians overtaking me. I feel like a clapped out Mini as they speed past like Ferraris. I just pray that I don’t get lapped by the male Olympic swimmers.
I try to think about my stroke for the next two laps, jostling for position with the pack of four. Near the end I notice that I am getting fatigued as my sighting is becoming worse and I am starting to zigzag. I turn at the final buoy and make my way through the harbour entrance against a huge tidal push. With maybe 300m to go I put everything into it to remain in first position among our group of four. Thankfully we hold positions.
I get out and say well done to all. As I shake hands I can see their lips are blue but I am fine chatting and waving to Oonagh and the boys at the finish line. We head back towards registration where I am told there are warm showers. No podium place on this occasion but I did manage to find enough reward in the steaming hot communal showers surrounded by the German, Swiss and other female teams. Me and one other Spanish guy talked in broken Spanglish with big grins on our faces thinking “Oh, to be 21 again!”
After much nervousness I thoroughly enjoyed the swim and the pack I competed with. Out of the men’s category I came 17th overall and within the local group came fourth. Seventeen people did not finish as the water temperature was much colder than previous years – playing to my advantage I think!