For decades, marathon swimming events from Italy (36 km Maratona del Golfo Capri-Napoli) to Argentina (88 km Maratón Internacional Hernandarias – Paraná) have attracted swimmers from around the world.
But one of the original marathon race has been held in West Bengal, India that is open to amateurs and professional swimmers. The 81 km India National Open Long Distance Swimming Championship in the River Bhagirathi.
Jose Luis Larrosa Chorro has won this warm-water race two times in 2016 and 2017. He describes his experiences, “India is an exotic destination to travel, but swimming in the Ganges means going beyond exotic to risk one’s health in one of the most polluted rivers in the world, yet it is the most sacred of rivers.”
He acknowledges the race’s reputation among overseas competitors. “Over the last few years, the races and the athletes of ultra distance have been proliferating, overcoming new challenges, going further and further, breaking records that nobody believed it was possible, achieving a certain recognition and being reported in the media. [This race] remains almost unknown due to the fact that its coverage is minimal and this competition happens to be held in one of the poorest countries in the world.
[But] the 74th edition is held in West Bengal between the villages of Jangipur and Berhampore and is a hugely celebrated event in the area. Although it is called Bhagirathi River, it is in the Ganges River which is approximately 150 km farther north from Kolkata. A race with 74 years of history, in which the distance has not always exactly the same, and in which international participation has been very limited, mainly, for reasons of accessibility and health risks. For locals, it is heroic to swim 81 km, [but] for foreigners, it is not only the distance, but it is also able to finish in perfect health as we are not accustomed to these waters.”
After Larrosa won in 10 hours 57 minutes in 2016, he told himself that he would not return. However at the request of two friends and swimmers, Cesar Hernandez and Daniel Ponce, he decided to return. “This year I was not prepared at all, I knew what I was supposed to do, and my preparation was not adequate, but I had to go for them.”
There are several obstacles to foreign participation: there is no website, there is limited information, few local people speak English, conditions are very different for non-Indians. “I am fortunate to have a great friend Rike from Delhi, who also trained and prepared to swimming for his Ironman race, who has helped me these two years. Thanks to him we have been able to participate. Rike spoke with the Indian Swimming Federation requesting for authorization, then with the Murshidabad Swimming Association that organizes the race, and on the ground is who accompanied us, reserved trains and hotels. Without him, my participation would not have been possible.”
For a competitive swimmer who has competed in dozens of races throughout Spain, Serbia, Portugal, Switzerland, Greece, Poland, Croatia, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia, and Thailand, India has a particularly unique allure. “We have enough to write a book about the events and curiosities about the place, its people, the race and a vast abundance of other things.
The place where the race takes place strikes you from the first moment. You come with the idea of a competition, but here you do not compete for winning, just to survive and finish. Starting from the lack of preparation in all aspects to swim there to the conditions in which the paddlers of the boats that accompany us have to face three and a half days of upstream paddling just to return to their homes just for a few rupees.
I did not have any health problems during the race. I swam a year ago and I did not fall sick at all. Within a few minutes of going into the Ganges River, I realized that it was not going to be a normal competition. You feel the people around. There are more than 200,000 people watching the race during the 81 km – because for them, the Ganges is their sacred river. I felt like I was not swimming in running water.”
“Our goal is clear: to reach the finish lane.
From the start, Daniel and I swam together in fourth and fifth position for two hours, then everything changed. Daniel was tired and slowed down while I was able to continue and I advanced to the third position in the third hour, second in the fifth hour, and finally reached the first swimmer in the seventh hour to which from then on I led the race without a problem.”
The swimmers faced a variety of climatic changes during the 12 hours of the competition: sunny, then cloudy with three bouts of rain, one of the rainfalls was very heavy together with a stiff oncoming wind which made the river look like a sea because of how turbulent it became. “However, the constant was always the water was very hot around 32°C (89.6°F) at all times. The feedings should be well studied and less than every 30 minutes. Salts must be drunk very frequently to avoid dehydration. Throughout the race, the environment around us smelled of smoke, which usually corresponds to human cremation from which the ashes and remains go to the river. Care must also be taken to avoid animal corpses, mostly cows and dogs. In fact, I hit a dead cow floating.”
The rituals, activities and ceremonies surrounding the event are impressive. “There is a parade held two days prior to the event in the streets announcing the event. There are also two public presentations where gifts are exchanged: one in Jangipur at the start and one in Berhampore at the finish. In addition to the massive trophy presentation where gifts for all finalists are plentiful, the champions are given great trophies.”
Among the 18 swimmers who started the race, nine finished with Larrosa first in 11 hours 7 minutes followed by Daniel Ponce in 11 hours 17 minutes. The other Spaniard, Cesar Hernandez finished fourth in 11 hours 50 minutes. The cut-off time is based on daylight so the maximum time is between 12.5 and 13 hours.
“It is a great experience for any open water swimmer, and although we usually get vaccinated and take precautions, the water quality is not bad at all, does not smell, has no unpleasant taste, and is only very muddy,” summed by Larrosa.
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