What do French use to iron their beaches? Why was I beaten as a child? Should I be happy about vaseline? How much does a VIP prison cell cost? How can Nutella calm your conscience? And what does it mean “to swim like a flea”?

Le Défi de Monte-Cristo

Actually, I like prisons and everything connected with them. Especially the jailbreaks. I already had to escape from a prison three years ago, in Alcatraz.

And I wanted to spend again some time behind bars, in a dreary and dark dungeon on an island, and to try to escape from there together with hundreds of “prisoners”.

This time I went to Château d’If, the second world-known prison. Alexandre Dumas was the one to make it famous telling us about the Count of Monte Cristo, this swim being named after him.

The Monte Cristo Swim is one of the most important and famous events in the annual calendar of swimmers from all over the world. Thousands of sportsmen come to Marseille at the end of June to have a unique opportunity to repeat Edmond Dantès’ mythical feat and swim 5 km from the prison-island to the coast.

Unfortunately, participants are not obliged to repeat all the details of Dantès’ escape and to start in a sack with tied legs. It would make their mission much more complicated. And the route is also different from the one described in the novel.

In a word, it’s a perfect place where I can do one more test training before Gibraltar in September.

So, Monte Cristo Swim:

• Distances: 5 km, 2.5 km and 1 km, with or without flippers. I’ve chosen 5 km without flippers.

• Every person over 16 years old can participate in Le Défi de Monte-Cristo, in the 1 km swim – swimmers from 12 to 15 years old.

• Wetsuit is optional, but 95% of swimmers take it. The water is about 20 degrees.

• Registration is online, on http://defimonte-cristo.com website, starting in early February. Everything is on French. As for me, I didn’t understand anything, so it’s better to learn French to fill in the registration form and read the e-mails faster, because the slots are sold in half an hour. And don’t forget about the medical certificate that confirms you can participate in the swim.

• Registration fee is from 20 to 40 euro, depending on the chosen slot. Prize fund is 3000 euro.

• Monte Cristo Swim is highly dependent on the weather conditions: in 2013 the swim was cancelled because of wind, and in 2016 the distances were shortened. So fingers crossed and pray.

So, after praying, packing my things and convincing my beloved that I won’t make it to the finish without her, I promised her to celebrate in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Well, if I will survive, of course. And we took the plane to Marseille.

Château d’If

And here we are – in the legendary city of Marseille. As for me – nothing special. The first acquaintance with the city was as usual, while running: narrow streets, the port, a market, the ferris wheel, the promenade, traffic jams, again streets that surprisingly remind me of San Francisco.

And, of course, after the running we went to the island of If, to get to know better the castle of the same name. And meanwhile we are breaking the waves on our boat, listen to the history of the castle.

In year 1527, the king of France decided to fortify the city and build a castle on the island of If. The dissatisfied pirates, who lived on the island, were dispersed, and already in 1531, the citizens of Marseille could watch the fortress that was supposed to protect the city from sea raids.

Beginning with the end of the XVI century, the castle was used as a prison – anyway it had no other purpose. And it was also well-located – it was almost impossible to escape from If castle. The island is surrounded by water, the flow is really fast, and even the strongest swimmers couldn’t cope with it (well, it’s easy, I tried myself). Only high risk offenders were imprisoned here.

But the most famous prisoner in the history of If castle was a detainee who never really existed. Of course, it’s Edmond Dantès, the hero of Alexandre Dumas’ novel “The Count of Monte Cristo”. Edmond was imprisoned due to a false report of jealous people on the 28th of February 1815, where he spent 14 years before escaping in a very original way.

There were sharp rocks near the coast of the island, that’s why for a prisoner to jump and swim to Marseille was nearly impossible. Besides this, there are strong flows in the coastal zone of the island, which are extremely difficult to cope with even for a physically strong person, not to speak of exhausted prisoners of If castle…

The conditions to which prisoners were subjected were so harsh, that If castle had earned itself a reputation of one of the most dangerous prisons in the world. The poor were supposed to stay in dirty, dark and overcrowded cells, filled with disease and unsanitary conditions.

Many people were chained to the walls, many died because of cold and hunger, some were spared and killed in a secret room. The bodies of the dead were thrown into the sea, but before that they were wrapped in rough cloth.

But it wasn’t that bad for rich detainees. If prisoner’s relatives had enough money, he was placed in the upper cell with windows and a fireplace, from where he could admire the sea and listen to the crashing waves.

These cells were called pistoles, because the rent was one pistole per day – approximately 250 euro nowadays. 7 500 euro a month – they must really worth a king.

No there are no gunshots around the fortress, except the start ones. The castle has become the main place of interest in Marseille. And every year, in June, it serves as the place of start for thousands of swimmers from all over the world.

Start expo

After a small excursion, we went to take our start kit. The start expo was conveniently located near the Grand Roucas beach, in Prado park, which is situated south of Marseille, near the Monte Cristo village.

The sun was hot as hell, the info center was empty, the expo didn’t work and tens of sweaty people were sadly standing in the queue to receive their kit.

The queue was small, but it wasn’t moving. After half an hour only 3 people left it. How can you spend 10 minutes on a single person? You only need to ask his last name, find out his number and give him his kit. Our girls from race kit pickup usually spend less than a minute on each person. I found the answer when it was my turn and a kind woman handed me a bunch of papers.

I don’t know whose idea was to sort the list of participants not by last names, but by their numbers (which nobody knows), but he really should be here to help each swimmer find his last name among dozens of papers, checking each line. For a second, 2500 lines with sportsmen’s names, sorted only by numbers which nobody knew (neither the sportsmen, nor the organizers). In order to find your last name and number, you need to check all the lists of participants.

After 10 minutes of list scanning, I found myself on the 17th page. Grunting happily, I proudly told this kind woman my number – 105.

Receiving my T-shirt and chip, Vika and I met some guys from Moldova. What a surprise! It turns out that two more Moldovans will participate in this legendary swim: Lyosha Kamenshik and his brother.

Well, good news must be celebrated with an ice-cream, a picture with the flag and an easy walk home.

DAY X

Morning came in the morning. Recently, in the morning before races I use to eat sandwiches with Nutella. Fast, tasty and energizing. And, of course, joyful :) When else will you have the chance to eat such a huge sandwich with a clear conscience? Better two. Or three?

We take a taxi and at 8 am we are already on the start. Wow! How do French people manage to daily “iron” their beaches to such flatness?

It looks like a mirror, not a beach. If our roads were as flat as the beaches in France, we would… would… damn it… nothing would change because of it. We just would have flat and smooth roads. Ehh…

People warm up, pull their wetsuits on the lower part of the body, apply sunscreen and try their swim caps and glasses.

A short briefing in French, where and how to swim. At least they said something in French. There are no more nationalities around. If you are not French, it’s your own fault. In fact, I’ve noticed that French people have too much chauvinism in their blood – there are We and those, how do you call them?… those… you know, Germans, Moldovans, Americans, Russians, Italians and other small people. No, of course, every great nationality has this disease, but French people seem to be the first at this.

The boat comes and we get into it, like a school of sardines, tightly packing in this metal vessel, to get out then near the prison – on the island of If.

After half an hour, we got on a deserted island, and the boat turned back to bring another school of sardines. The sun is hot, so we snuggle up in the shade, so as our carcasses do not begin to decay. But the shadow is too small, and we are too many, that’s why we stand tightly and rub against each other.

People begin to apply vase…

– Oh, God, no, vaseline! I forgot mine! Damn it, damn it!

No, wait! No more vaselineless swims, not today – I already have swum dry and made bloody calluses. I don’t want anymore. There are good people around, so after a few minutes I’m already diligently smearing the cream on my neck, thinking:

Why the hell does a swimmer in a wetsuit all the time need to apply this “delicate cream” on his neck? Maybe someone could come up with something that will keep the neck safe without lubricants?

My thoughts were interrupted by a sudden sound of the sardine ship, sailing towards us. And one more portion of fish-swimmers went out of it. But since there was no more place on the island, people began to slide into the water and warm up.

Even though there are only 30 minutes before the start, Lyoha and I decided to dip too. The start will be from water, so I take the strategically right path and swim towards the first line in the stalls. It’s also possible to start from the amphitheater or from the balcony, but today will be a gun start, so every meter counts.

Note: Gun start (or gunshot) – is a way of start on competitions, when all the sportsmen start simultaneously, no matter how far they are from the finish. So, it’s more advantageous to be in the first lines, because the last ones will have to swim more. But, in practice, it’s impossible for all the participants to cross the start line at the same time, it takes a few minutes. That’s why on AIMS certificated races (Chisinau International Marathon, for example) the organizers give the participants special electronical chips, that record the individual time of crossing the start line. And for each finisher is recorded not only the fact of finish, but also his intermediate results and so-called “brutto” and “netto” time: from the moment of start and from the moment of crossing the start line, respectively. But Monte Cristo Swim is held differently – everybody starts simultaneously, so if you want to swim for a result, fight for the first lines.

Lyoha remained in the back to calmly accelerate without panic or adrenaline – also a good choice for start. But not for me. I like the agitation, so, saying “sorry” left and right and smiling charmingly, I push forward. But there are 20 more minutes before the start, so I slowly wipe my glasses, put my nose clip, let some water in my wetsuit…

BANG!!!!

What’s happening? The gun start sounded out of the blue, 18 minutes earlier before expected! The water around me began to boil, everyone rushed ahead! Panic!

Stop, take it easy, u-huh, watches, I need to turn on the GPS, satellites, where are you???? Ok, I’ll find them later, there is no time to lose. Speaking to the organizers in my head, and trying to explain them with simple, but obscene words, that it isn’t good to do such things, I start to swim.

I was beaten as a child. Less home, more at school. Not very hard, but with remarkable frequency. Oh, how I wished then to grow up and get back at those bullies. And now I grew up, and proved to myself and to everybody else that I’m not that scared child anymore, who cannot pull-up three times, and that now I am an ironman and participate in such great events, which can take someone’s breath away, but…

I’m beaten again.

Not very hard, but with remarkable frequency. Maybe, it’s about karma. Today I felt like I’ve done more wrong things than usual, and the Universe is now punishing me way harder, because I was beaten really bad. I was in the middle of everything, among professionals and all of those who want to become one. I took hits to my glasses, nose, head, someone swam on me from above, and when I, out of breath, decided to emerge from the water, someone hit me right in the face. I’ve been through such starts in my career, but it’s the first time when I’m beaten for so long time. This torture lasted 15 minutes. The Count of Monte Cristo, even if he could get out of his sack, probably wouldn’t make it to the coast with such a hailstorm of hits.

But, despite the bruises, I was feeling happy, because I achieved my main goal – a fast start. With those dozens of fast swimmers who cut the water ahead, it was easier for me to swim faster than usual.

My strategy for today is drafting. Or, how we use to call it – tag along. It’s useless to draft behind a swimmer who’s slower than you, but the fast ones start from the first lines. So I’m looking for a victim, because today I’m a parasite! I have plenty of options, and I “cling” to… I don’t know who am I clinging to, it’s not important. The important thing is to avoid touching his heels – it’s very unpleasant, I know firsthand, and to parasyte in such a way, that the host doesn’t feel any discomfort.

During the whole race, I managed to switch between hosts at least ten times, and a couple of times I’ve noticed that someone tried to parasyte on me. I overtook some people to cling to others, who were faster, and when they got slowlier, I switched to another one. Like a flea. But there were some guys who’s pace was too fast for me, so I lag behind. And this way, switching from one to another, I swam approximately 3 km, saving my forces.

I take a look at my watch. Average pace 1:38 per 100 meters. Awesome. Sometimes during drafting I managed to reach 1:23. Perfect. Even too much. But I suppose there are some favorable currents – this speed is not typical for me, but anyone warned about that.

No feeling of tiredness, the water is wonderful – transparent, cool, a little bit salty, I’m full of forces. I can’t believe this, where’s the catch? I swim and think about what to write in my report: nobody wants to read fairytales like:

Once upon a time there was a prince. He went to fight the Dragon, easily won and turned back home with a princess. And they lived together happily ever after.

That sucks.

But, fortunately for readers, the dragon (my wetsuit) began to rub my neck. So I can’t think of anything, except for escaping this terrible pain. It contributes to new ideas of preventing the discomfort the next time. And so, through my rubbed neck, an idea comes to my head:

What if to make a cuff for neck? Such a reusable condom, which will protect swimmer’s neck from rubbing… Interesting… When I come back to Chisinau, I will definitely tell the guys from “garage” this new idea.

While I was thinking, I didn’t notice how the finishing buoy appeared on the horizon. And when I saw it, I decided to accelerate. But when you try to do your best on competitions, it seems like you can’t go any faster, because you’re already feeling bad. But there is always room for that. And it usually doesn’t feel worse.

My heart rate grows with the speed, and the air is not enough even for 2 movements. And this way I go to the finish, overtaking a couple more people. My watch shows and average pace of 1:37. Awesome!

There is a low arch on the finish, right above the water. I dive under it, emerge, stand up, wobble, take the flag (thank you, my beloved) and, fighting off the volunteers who want to take off my chip, run to the finish.

I look for the girls who give the medals and… can’t find them.

– Hey, girls, I’m here! Where are you? My tired neck is ready to feel the weight of my well-deserved medal!

And there’s no answer… only the presenter screams something into the microphone in French, and you understand, that there is no medal for today… But I pretend that everything is OK, kiss my invisible medal, and think to myself:

It feels like greediness. I pay you 40 euro for this race, is it so hard to spend 4 euro on a medal? And I’m telling this not only as a sportsman, but also as an organizer of dozens of sport events, including the swim on Ghidighici lake and the international marathon in Chisinau. We give each participant a backpack, a T-shirt and a medal. And he pays only 10-15 euro. And usually we do not cover the costs, but it’s not the point. The point is that you should feel like a hero on the finish line, to have fond memories of this event, of a professional organization, smiling volunteers and an atmosphere of happiness and personal victories.

I am totally convinced that each major swim or race, where an ordinary man, training hard for months, overcomes his laziness, fears and pain, should lead each participant to a Medal. For a man who was able to get over himself, it’s the symbol of victory, and he will show this symbol to his grandchildren, as his grandfather once used to show him his medals.

But here I all the time felt myself like a punching bag, which nobody does care about, begging with the website in French, the foolish registration, the total mess on the start, lack of medals and an atmosphere of general indifference.

I’ve had such an experience only on Cyprus marathon. The indifference towards runners and organization was so high, that I refused to write a report about that marathon. And when I saw how the director of the route wrote an S letter on the asphalt with chalk and told us that it’s the start line, I understood that people just make money. And I have this unpleasant feeling again.

The New York marathon and Comrades make money too. BUT. It’s a holiday with music, fun, a perfect organization, billions of supporters, “We love you!” in the air, and you are happy.

Well, enough whining, we are the ones to make ourselves a party, so we went to celebrate the race with guys. And there is something to celebrate – to swim 5 km in 01:19, with an average pace of 1:37 and to be ranked the 110 out of 640, for me is a good thing to celebrate!

The details of the swim: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1813988377

It was hard, but I’m still alive, so we go with my beloved to eat some local delicacies in Le Petit Nice restaurant. As I promised :)

All in all, if you, like me, don’t care about the mistakes of organization, it’s worth to spend a couple of days in Marseille, to walk through Château d’If, to eat bouillabaisse, and, of course, to feel like the count of Monte Cristo, swimming in the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

But I continue my path to Gibraltar – swim about 40 km a month in the pool and in open water, participate in Bosphorus, Seamile, swim longs in Croatia, Barcelona and Turkey. And on one of the days between the 7th and the 12th of September, I will enter the water in Europe and get out of the water in Africa…