Outside magazine, May 1999
Eat My Backwash, Se±or!
Sixteen hours in the foul Argentine drink, at a pair of the world's longest (and strangest) swim races
By Ken Kalfus
Photographs by Rob Howard
After swimming 54 miles down an Argentine river in nine hours, one minute, and 41 seconds, Stephane Lecat slaps a white Plexiglas board suspended over the water and emerges to cheers at a packed beach in the inland port of Paranß. He grins, whips off his goggles and silver swim cap, and gives his trademark two-fisted victory salute. At that moment, Igor Majcen appears behind him. The Slovenian has also swum 54 miles, from the starting line at the resort town of Hernandarias, but he has taken precisely nine more seconds to do so. Lecat turns and waits for him to stagger out of the water. Majcen's steps are tentative as he approaches Lecat; it's the first time he's used his legs to walk since morning. Looking away from each other, the two men embrace lightly. The gesture is oddly dispassionate, after hours of combat as intimate as lovemaking.
The raucous crowd on this summer afternoon is fresh from its own exertions of the day: tanning, flirting, barbecuing. The spectators stand shoulder-to-shoulder and several deep on the ground above the sand at the Paranß Rowing Club. Journalists occupy a floating, rusting pier reached via a tall, unsteady ladder; overexcited radio commentators shout into cell phones.
Lecat and Majcen have left the water by the time, two minutes later, that the next swimmer finishes. Last year's champion, David Meca Medina, acknowledges the throng with a full-toothed smile, despite this being his worst finish in three seasons as a professional marathon swimmer.
Next comes the Cuban kid, Andres Perez Gonzales. Finishing strong, the 18-year-old misses the buoys marking the channel to the finish line. Two of the race officials rush into the water to steer him back--shouting, gesticulating, and soaking their shorts--but with more than nine hours of steam behind him, he misses them, too. A third official finally captures his attention by blocking his way, and Perez dives beneath the buoys and reemerges to slap the glass. It takes him a few moments to gather the strength to stand in the knee-deep water. As he gazes upon the spectators lining the beach and the pier, as cameras and radio booms turn toward him, his square, olive-skinned face betrays his disorientation. It is as if he does not know where he is, or how, by what toilsome means, he has arrived.
ON THIS BLUE-GREEN PLANET THERE ARE few men or women who want to swim competitively for eight or nine hours, and nearly all of them have come to Santa Fe and Paranß, two neighboring cities about 300 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. It is the middle of a five-week marathon season, in which the usually inconspicuous sport of open-water swimming electrifies small cities and towns in Argentina and Brazil. The tour has come here after a late January race in Brazil to complete the Southern Hemisphere leg of the World Cup marathon swimming season, under the sanction of the world swimming federation, FINA. After the Río Coronda and Hernandarias-Paranß swims, there is one more World Cup marathon in Argentina before the swimmers rest up for the Northern Hemisphere races later this year. For most it will be four in five weeks.
Of all the world's marathons, the most celebrated is the Río Coronda, running 39 miles downriver from Santa Fe to the town of Coronda along the branch of the Río Paranß that bears its name, on the first Sunday in February. The following Sunday's race, the 54-mile epic from Hernandarias to Paranß, is the world's longest. It is conducted in the sandy, opaque waters of the Río Paranß itself, whose wide main channel separates the two host cities, the capitals of adjacent provinces.
As a sport, open-water swimming has been in decline ever since Leander drowned crossing the Hellespont. Nowadays it's ignored by multinational sponsors and satellite television alike. The grueling races are often swum in conditions that at best can be called adverse: miserable cold, the gloom of night, the fecal and industrial filth of the Nile. In the Atlantic City marathon a few years ago, a baby jellyfish swam into the mouth of one of the swimmers. Here on the Paranß, a chicken factory lies upriver, and in years past swimmers have shared the current with chicken heads and other parts. What little prize money there is barely covers expenses. In this year's Río Coronda marathon, the swimmers share a paltry $26,500 purse, from which the top three will withdraw more than half.
But in the arc of earth described by the river segment between Santa Fe and Coronda, the swimmers gain the glory denied them elsewhere. In the week leading up to the race, mayors present the swimmers with ceremonial T-shirts, strangers kiss them and offer to perform even more elaborate services upon their persons, teenage girls thrust pieces of paper and even their limbs for inscription, local reporters question them about their hamstrings, and in seemingly countless public venues they eat gargantuan dinners of disastrously overcooked pasta. Once the race begins, between 100,000 and 150,000 spectators materialize on the banks of the river. On the river itself, the swimmers paddle their way south surrounded by a floating, air-horn-equipped Greek chorus aboard hundreds of pleasure craft.
BY SOME LOVELY FORTUITY NOT FULLY APPRECIATED by all the swimmers, we have arrived in Argentina on the 100th anniversary of the birth of its greatest writer, Jorge Luis Borges. Borges's work draws from ancient mythologies, legends, and folklore--some of which he cheerfully made up. Its principal image is the labyrinth: the physical kind invented by Daedalus in Crete, of course, but also the mazes created by dreams, language, and desire.
The morning after one of the races, I ask the swimmers what they dreamed the night before. Most report no dreams at all. They usually have trouble sleeping after a race. Their shoulders and necks ache; traces of adrenaline still course through their veins.
The Dutch swimmer Edith van Dijk says she dreamed of spiders, that's all. Her face is red from yesterday's sun, save for the eerie silver shadows of the goggles around her eyes. There's also a mark under one eye from being kicked accidentally by a fellow swimmer, and a bruise incurred when she collided with a tree branch loose in the river. But no, all she can remember from the past night is spiders and the lingering sensation of being rocked by the river's waves.
FOR THE PEOPLE OF SANTA FE PROVINCE, the Río Coronda marathon is the most eagerly awaited and joyously observed public event of the year. The race principally draws its mystique from the river, which gives the province its identity and livelihood. Swiftly it surges through the rich farmland, past green fields that stretch to the horizon, lawned estancias, and stands of native lapacho and palo borracho trees. "If you look around, you will always see water," says Diego Degano, the race's organizer. "It's more important to swim than to walk." Every boy dreams of swimming the Río Coronda marathon, and Degano is the quintessential local boy made good: He has won it four times.
When I first arrive at the Santa Fe airport, without a number to call or a word of Spanish, I keep on saying, "Diego Degano Diego Degano," until someone brings me to him. Famed throughout Argentina, Degano is a short and dark ex-swimmer, with a handsome seriousness hardly in keeping with his 30 years. Rimless eyeglasses add to his air of dignity. He last won the Río Coronda in 1993, and now he broadcasts sports commentaries on the local television station and organizes the marathon. The week before the race he takes an office in the lobby of the elegantly spartan Castelar Hotel, where the swimmers also stay, and sticks a cell phone in his ear; it doesn't come out until the race is over and the last swimmer has made it to shore.
Throughout the festivities leading up to the race, Degano is as much the object of adoration as any active swimmer. A rally in the old Santa Fe marketplace, a huge red-brick Spanish-mission barn, reaches its most fevered pitch when Degano runs onto the stage swinging the marathon trophy over his head. It's a hefty chrome-and-marble pyramid that stays in Santa Fe: Winners simply get their names on plaques affixed to its side.
The following morning I meet Degano in the caf‰ of the Castelar. With pride he introduces me to an ancestor of sorts, Carlos Alberto Larriera, a portly, silver-haired gentleman who won the first Río Coronda marathon, in 1961. He swam it three more times, winning another first prize. He later came out of retirement to compete in three veterans' races, the last when he was 44 and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. His son is the only person known to have swum the marathon course in the opposite direction, upstream from Coronda to Santa Fe. It took him 25 hours.
A little while later there's a rustle of excitement in the caf‰ upon the entrance of the marathon's future, as represented by the splendidly denominated Facundo Quiroga, a 20-year-old swimmer from the next town down the river. The pride of Santo Tom‰ is a slender, long-limbed youth with a fetchingly crooked grin and jet-black hair--Mantle to Degano's DiMaggio. Last year he finished ninth in the Río Coronda; now he says he's learned more and feels stronger, although this is what all the swimmers tell me before the race. In the presence of Larriera, Degano, and Quiroga, I feel myself confronted not only with generations of long-distance swimmers, but with centuries of them, going back to the indigenous Querandí, for this quick river must have always been a dare to the big-lunged and strong.
FOUNDED IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, Santa Fe owes its vibrancy to its pedestrian mall; along its mile length of shops, kiosks, and caf‰s not a single lot is vacant. Every evening following the afternoon siesta, youths promenade up and down San Martín, the girls wearing tight tank tops and some of the men without shirts at all: It's a real chest culture.
During the week before the Río Coronda, the swimmers train in a pool at the Club Atl‰tico Unin, sharing it with children doing cannonballs and belly flops into their swim lanes. Designated the Diego Degano Center for Swimming (his name is painted on a wall in heavily flourished red letters), the facility includes a slide and a kiddie pool, concrete bleachers and rusting girders. A towering diving platform casts its shadow across the water; no longer in use, its steps have been cut away. Beneath it Jean-Michel Ciceron, Stephane Lecat's coach, is timing his laps, urging him to pump it up. Ciceron has to sign autographs while he's doing this; I'm stopped for autographs while I'm talking with Ciceron.
ON THE THURSDAY BEFORE THE RÍO CORONDA, the swimmers board a line of motorboats outside Coronda itself. The next time they enter the village they will be kicking and splashing; now they climb aboard the vessels, towed on trailers by pickup trucks. A police car leads the way. The procession heads for the small town, passes through the two incongruous white Doric columns that mark its entrance, and lumbers down Coronda's main thoroughfare, a narrow, one-way street crowded by two- and three-story buildings in a mix of styles from Spanish colonial to the middle of this century. The shop signs are gaudily hand-painted; we go past the Verdulería y Dispensa "Guadelope," past the electrolumacia store, past a family whose small white poodle has a scarlet ribbon around its neck, and now, as we approach the town center, a solid line of people at the curb as the air becomes electric, past crowds and past the Tienda la Unin, whose proprietor rings a cow bell. The high cirrus clouds are turning pink just as the parade ends at the town hall, where the mayor awards each swimmer a jar of locally made strawberry preserves.
What must be the entire population of the town congregates on the esplanade overlooking the river; one by one the swimmers rush onto a floodlit stage, their arms raised beneath spumes of flying insects coalesced around the lights. The crowd erupts for the two Argentine swimmers, Facundo Quiroga and Gabriel Chailliu. Quiroga keeps his arms above his head, a lightning rod for local pride. When the swimmers leave, a white-robed priest in sandals comes out and blesses the esplanade, recently rebuilt after floods last year. He is quickly replaced by pop music and six teenage girls perfectly executing a series of energetic Macarenalike dances in black boots, black hot pants, and halter tops.
At the Río Coronda, everything but the swimmers is local, and this imbues the race with genuine pride. The swimmers' official dress-black marathon T-shirt--not to be confused with the richly logoed white marathon T-shirt for informal wear--is a virtual battleground of local corporate insignia: Profot film developing, the Castelar Hotel, Santa Fe cerveza, Sancor grated cheese.
IN THEIR HOTEL ROOM THE DAY BEFORE the race, Lynn Blouin and Nicolas Knap are mixing drinks. They have placed six 1.5-liter plastic bottles between their twin beds, filled them halfway with bottled water, and added carefully measured capfuls of a powdered high-energy food through a funnel. "For me it's best to only drink in a race," says Knap, "because when you eat, your stomach..." He makes a vocal impersonation of an explosively upset stomach. The drink is easily the worst lunch I've ever seen destined for a Frenchman's gullet.
Knap is a relatively small man; only his wiry, rounded biceps suggest his power. His face is creased by emotion and his speech is continually punctuated by sound effects, Gallic shrugs, and existential moues. He seems always to have a full day's growth of beard and refuses to shave his chest, as nearly all the other male swimmers do. The 25-year-old has swum the Río Coronda twice before, placing fourth in 1997 and fifth in 1998.
Open-water swimming is indisputably a team sport; the athlete sinks or swims on the efforts of the coach in the boat alongside him, as well as on the boat driver's knowledge of the waters' currents. The coach must count the swimmer's strokes and regulate his pace, jeer him if he thinks it'll help, tell jokes, write messages on a dry-erase board, and feed him using a jury-rigged pole or fishing rod at whose end is a receptacle in which to rest a paper cup.
Quebecer Lynn Blouin has been involved for the past 13 years in organizing a swimming marathon from Vermont to Canada across Lake Memphremagog, held every July. This is her second season coaching Knap; she is using her vacation time, and then some, from her job with a local politician to be in his boat. Later she confides that their relationship has recently become, on top of a million other complications, romantic.
Relationships based on swimming don't always work out; take Hero, the priestess of Aphrodite. Her boyfriend, Leander, lived on the other side of the Hellespont and swam to her every night "to woo--and Lord knows what beside," according to Lord Byron's report. Leander drowned in one such clandestine crossing. In her despair, Hero plunged after him into the sea.
FROM THE AIR, THE REGION BELOW SANTA FE is a complicated, watery braid, winding among green, grassy islands, stands of water plants, mudflats, dead-end pools, serpentine streams, eddies, and rapids--an abundant, intricate labyrinth.
After a one-day delay caused by bad weather, the swimmers are a bit on edge Monday morning as they arrive at the Río Coronda departure point. They stretch and take massages, slick various forms of grease onto their bodies, mostly Vaseline. Ever the nonconformist, Knap smears on cow fat. I tell him about a species of piranha, the palometa fish, that lurks in the river's still pools; palometa gorge themselves sick on cow fat.
The swimmers start the race in water churned by a flotilla of small boats and a few larger ones, including some yachts. From my small open motorboat, it all seems chaotic and not a little dangerous. And it is: A German swimmer senses a shadow passing over him and feels a momentary pain in his nether regions. It's a propeller. He will emerge from the water eight hours and 48 minutes later to find a hole in his bathing suit but with no other, more personal damage.
It's barely past breakfast and already we're in the middle of a great waterborne party. As we leave the Santa Fe city limits, the channel is thick with boats and the air near the water is sweet with fumes and hot with the roar of engines and the coaches' whistles. I can only imagine what the water tastes like. Nobody on the river wears life vests, except for the Jet Ski cops. On the front of one yacht is a gray-bearded man in a captain's hat and a dark blazer. He wears a mask in the likeness of Argentine president Carlos Menem. (Prizes for the best costume will be awarded when we reach Coronda.) An elderly, bespectacled woman wears a nun's black robe: Mother Teresa, she calls out.
Nearly all the swimmers stick close to one another in the early going, striking at the brown water together. The boats that surround them are never more than three or four feet apart and frequently nudge up against one another. Lecat and Majcen, always in the lead, will swim the entire day in a moving parcel of water the dimensions of a studio apartment and walled by seafaring wood and fiberglass, while strangers shout and snap their photos. Think of the terrestrial equivalent, the Boston Marathon, in traffic.
A ship belonging to the Prefectura Naval--the Argentine Coast Guard--clears the channel ahead of the swimmers. An amphibious military vehicle carries a platform upon which stands an eight-piece band, definitely nonmilitary, pumping out a numbingly amplified pop song. In another vessel, eight men in furry hats are beating a bunch of drums to death. Diego Degano motors alongside my skiff and, like Zeus hurtling a thunderbolt, throws me a marathon T-shirt. He orders me to wear it. We pass young women tanning in their bikinis on the bows of yachts. ("Tie me to the mast!" cries the photographer on my boat.) On an impossibly small dinghy, passengers cook blood sausages in a cast-iron stove. Picnickers on the grassy lawns of grand beachfront houses applaud our passage. Spectators have parked their vintage American cars from the fifties and sixties alongside the river. They wave.
We pass Igor Majcen's boat; its engine has caught fire. Majcen swims ahead as his coach changes boats. Four horses, their unharnessed flanks gleaming as wetly as the swimmers', run up to the shore alongside them. They gallop with them for a half mile or so before breaking away. A cloud of ducks rises above the distant horizon.
THE SWIMMER ENTERS THE WATER BUT, as in kindred sports like running and cycling, he declines to enter a fiction; he remains content for the story to be contained within the abilities and limits of his own body. No ball or puck is bestowed with a notional value and no elaborate narrative structure (innings, downs) is raised to give the story shape. Which is not to say that a marathon does not have a strategy. It boils down to the attempt of each athlete to answer two questions: How much strength does my opponent have? And, more elusively, how much strength do I have?
The swimmer lives in a universe bound by his own froth. He has scant knowledge of his competitors' positions or how they are swimming. One imagines, though, that they are always in one another's thoughts, mirrored: If Majcen sprints and doesn't pass Lecat, does Lecat believe that's all the strength Majcen has, or does he wonder if Majcen is merely toying with him to tire him out? The swimmers' paths are straight but their courses are entangled.
Lecat and Majcen swim close, closer than the boats around them. For most of the afternoon, Lecat stays even with Majcen, whose spurts keep him ahead for no more than a few minutes. Then Jean-Michel Ciceron, Lecat's coach, holds up his dry-erase board with a grim message: "Meca sprint."
David Meca Medina, who won all but one of his races last year, is employing his usual tactic of conserving his strength until the final sprint. At five feet, ten inches and 150 pounds, he believes that his small size is an advantage over Majcen and Lecat. "They have bigger bodies than I have," he tells me, "so when they get tired, they get very tired."
Ciceron is shouting at Lecat now with a combination of encouragement and derision. He writes on the board more bad news: "Meca 130 m." Twenty boats surround him and Majcen now, and they stroke, stroke, stroke, trying in vain to resist Meca Medina's onslaught.
MEANWHILE, WELL BEHIND THE leaders, Nicolas Knap is leaving the water.
He had a strong start, staying close to the rest of the swimmers. But three and a half hours into the race, Lynn Blouin could see that "the group was going away, and I knew it would be hard for him to catch up and harder for him to accept it." The 25-year-old has never won a marathon. Forty-five minutes later, Knap starts to complain about the boats and his drinks.
"Keep the glass straight," he demands. "Tell the driver he is stupid. His job is to keep the boat straight."
Blouin tries not to take his complaints personally--all the swimmers complain to their trainers. Anyway, "he's French, so he has to complain."
A minute later, Knap stops swimming.
"My shoulder's hurting."
Blouin purses her lips. She knows her swimmer hasn't been feeling well. In a race in Brazil last week, he wanted to come out at just this point.
"OK, let's take it slow," she says.
Knap rests for a few minutes and then suddenly seems to curl up in the water.
Blouin is alarmed. "Are you all right?"
Knap has taken off his goggles and begun to cry. He comes up to the boat. She reaches out and gives him her arms, careful to keep him away from the side of the boat. If a swimmer touches his boat, he's immediately disqualified from the race. At that moment Knap makes a decision on his own: He lets go of his coach and grabs the boat.
"Please take me out," he says. "Please, I don't want to swim."
THREE MEN SWIM THE RÍO CORONDA'S 39 miles and arrive within seconds of one another: Lecat, Meca Medina, Majcen. Eight hours, one minute, and 48 seconds. One of them, however, is bleeding from the nose.
Meca Medina is furious. He emerges from the water, says one spectator, with "the look of a killer." He was kicked in the face by Lecat in the closing meters of the race and claims that it was done deliberately. He repeats the claim to the television cameras waiting on the beach, and a video of the offending blow is shown repeatedly on local television in the next week. Meca Medina's nose bleeds for several days.
In the week after the Río Coronda, as they move across the river for the Hernandarias-Paranß marathon, the other swimmers wonder whether Meca Medina is messing with Lecat's head or with his own. At an impromptu press conference in a bar, the lanky, balding Lecat is forced to defend himself in clear but limited English; Meca Medina, a Spaniard with dark good looks and a klieg-light smile, delivers a fluent response in his native tongue that earns him an enthusiastic ovation. The contest between them continues--unspoken, subterranean, subaquatic.
THE AMUSING WRINKLE IN THE 54-MILE race from Hernandarias to Paranß is that the guide boats are powered by oars. The oarsmen are athletes in their own right, of course, but at one point a medical boat must zoom across the water to deliver one of the rowers a new lighter for his cigarettes.
There are other differences between the races. The Río Paranß proper is much wider than the Río Coronda--at least a mile across in some places--and its lush riverbank and wooded palisades are largely unpopulated. The accompanying fleet is smaller; Mother Teresa has taken the day off. And now, with the bulk of the spectators waiting for us on the beach, the race becomes a simpler, more comprehensible version of the Río Coronda. Two and a half hours in, as the first boats approach the village of Pueblo Brugo, Lecat, Majcen, and Meca Medina are in the lead.
Meca Medina falls behind, but Lecat and Majcen must assume it's as a shark falls behind, waiting for supper. The Frenchman and the Slovenian parry and thrust throughout the afternoon. For hours they swim side by side, perhaps oblivious to everything but each other. The water is a confusing place; as each man's fibers strain in resistance to the other's performance, might he not begin to imagine that he is the other?
As the leaders slug it out, I race back in a speedboat. Passing the group, I look for Knap and Blouin, but I don't find them until I return to the Don Quixote, a small ferry that is serving as an observation boat for the officials and the press. Blouin is on deck, watching Majcen and Lecat, while Knap lies resting on one of the benches in the shade. He had been doing well earlier in the race: As I passed, he had blown me a kiss in midstroke.
His right shoulder had begun to hurt him just as he passed Gabriel Chailliu and was closing in on Meca Medina. Blouin gave him aspirin and suggested different strokes--but soon he couldn't move his arm. She says she's relieved that this week's withdrawal was purely physical. But she doesn't sound it.
She confesses a peculiar remorse. "Last week we," meaning herself, "didn't do so well, not telling him what he wants to hear." This time, she says, they had been completely in sync.
These are a lover's assertions. Blouin and Knap were coach and swimmer for half of a season before becoming romantically involved; the drink stick was their first connection. Now their failure to finish the two marathons places things in question. Will they blame each other? Without swimming, when would they meet? Why? Romance proves to be yet another human construction of false doors, dead ends, and deceiving perspectives.
FACUNDO QUIROGA SWIMS THE RIVER OF his childhood and dreams that the river is an immense library and that he is swimming through endless corridors of lost books written by forgotten alchemists and geomancers. The persevering current has scoured the words from their pages, so that now the books comprise no more than packets of time. Facundo glides through ancient minutes and hours. The intaglio laid into the floor of the library, shimmering green in the underwater light, is just as the book depository of Atlantis was described by Plautus. Facundo's stroke is effortless; it is as if he himself is made from water. And then Facundo realizes that he is no longer swimming, but asleep in his bed, dreaming of the swim; or perhaps, that another swimmer is dreaming of him.
AT THE START OF THE HERNANDARIAS-PARANÂ MARATHON, the morning is cloudless and the sun lays upon the river a bolt of incandescence. Off the beach in Hernandarias, idling boats and yachts purr like cats. The drummers are out, and a helicopter hovers overhead, patiently beating the air. Spectators sip mat‰ from painted gourds and aluminum straws. On the skin of the Paranß, the light shifts and shimmers, presenting a multitude of possibilities and exigencies; within the river lies a vastness of luminescent green chambers, constantly changing their dimensions. The swimmers wade in without speaking. They lick the insides of their goggles to prevent fogging and adjust their caps. They wait for a signal. The moment swells like a tear drop in the corner of an eye. And then there's a shot and a puff of smoke, the responding bleat of air horns, and all together and all by themselves, they descend into the watery maze.
Ken Kalfus is the author of Thirst, a collection of short stories published by Milkweed Editions.